A is for Assessment

ExamI have thought for some time that if I ever get myself together enough to write a book in the field of education, my subject would be assessment. It’s probably the issue I think about the most often. It truly bothers me that it’s done so poorly—not just with standardized tests, but also in classroom settings. It’s too big for a blog post, but I will put a few of my thoughts together.

Several years ago, and some of you have been reading this blog long enough to remember, I read Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. When I read that book, things really clicked for me. I cannot honestly say that I create UbD units for everything I teach, but one aspect of UbD that has really stayed with me is authentic assessment. I don’t give tests, even though UbD says tests are fine in addition to performance tasks. I give quizzes, but rarely with multiple choice, true/false, or other types of purely objective questions. I tend to ask more open-ended questions that require students to tell me what they know about a given topic. Aside from these types of quizzes, the main types of summative assessments I give are writing assignments, discussions, and projects.

Our school is incorporating more project-based learning. Project-based learning is not the same thing as doing projects. I have had to do plenty of projects in school that were more or less busy work and didn’t demonstrate much learning. Those old dioramas come to mind. Quite a few posters come to mind as well. However, I do recall doing some projects as a part of project-based learning that required deeper learning. For instance, in the sixth grade, I created a tour guide for Venezuela. I am sure that my social studies teacher required certain elements, such as tourist destinations, exchange rates, and the like, but what I remember is researching the country and creating the pages in my guide so that I my readers could learn everything they needed to know about the country in order to prepare for a visit. I still remember showing the project to my language arts teacher, who told me, “Oh, now I want to go to Venezuela.” I remember doing the work and what I learned because it was an authentic assessment that placed me in the role of a tour guide writer who needed to convince readers to visit a country, and it felt fantastic when my language arts teacher liked the project. My social studies teacher easily could have asked us to write a research report that included the same information, but I doubt I’d still be remembering the research report more than 30 years later, nor would I remember what I’d learned about Venezuela. The most important thing is that I did all the work. I did the reading and research. I created the tour guide. My teacher must have given me class time, but I recall sitting by myself in the library, with a copy of Fodor’s Travel Guide, encyclopedias, and other books.

One of the reasons I am an advocate for authentic, project-based assessment is that I have seen the students’ engagement in the learning, and I have seen how it helps students to learn and remember more of what they learn. There is a saying that has been bandied around to the point of cliché, but it’s worth sharing at this point:

Franklin Quote

Some years ago, a student gave me a card that I have cherished. In it, she wrote that she felt the work she did in my class was relevant. To be quite honest, the work I assigned, especially before I became thoughtful about designing for understanding and authentic assessment, was not always relevant. In fact, it often wasn’t. Students should understand why what they are learning is important and what they might do with it in the future. We’re not always great at communicating the importance of the work we assign. We need to reflect on the work we ask students to do. We need to determine what it is that we want students to learn, and we need to plan lessons and assessments that will help the students learn that information. We also need to give students agency and choices. Students should have a role in selecting reading and writing assignments. They should be given opportunities to discuss what they are learning in their reading and writing, too. It is in this way that we can involve students so that they learn.

None of that is to say that we do away with essays or tests, but we need to ask students to apply what they are learning in our classes so that they understand they’re not learning it for a test. I have only scratched the surface and don’t feel I’ve said a whole lot here, but please check out some of my other posts on assessment for more, and of course, more will come, as I can’t seem to leave this topic alone. (See tags and category links below for more on assessment.)

Chalkboard background: Karin Dalziel

photo by: albertogp123

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Professional Development Books that Influenced my Teaching Practices

I am asked often enough for recommendations of this sort of thing that I thought I’d share.

Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe was the first truly useful and completely life-changing professional development book I read. I utterly altered the way I taught after reading it. It seems obvious to think about larger questions and determine what I want students to learn or be able to do by the end of a lesson or unit, but I wasn’t doing it before I read this book. This book is an essential in project-based learning. Some of my older posts written as I reflected on reading this book still get more traffic than anything else on this blog. Try searching for the tags “ubd” or “understanding by design” to read them.

After reading An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students by Ron Berger this summer, I completely revamped the way I teach writing, and it’s really working well. For more information about writing workshop in my classes, check out these posts: Writing Workshop Part 1, Writing Workshop Part 2, and Writing Workshop Part 3. One of our history teachers and I discussed how this process could be used in his classes as well, and he has begun to implement it with excellent results. We had an enthusiastic sharing session about it last week. I am so thrilled. The side benefits: 1) students are returning to the work, even after it’s been graded, to refine it further (not every student, true, but the fact that any student is doing this is remarkable to me); 2) no issues with plagiarism, which is a benefit I didn’t even consider when I started (but it makes sense if you are sharing your work with all your peers, you wouldn’t plagiarize it); 3) our classroom is a true community—one student commented on course evaluations that “we are always collaborating” and another said that the class is like “a family.” Students are beginning to ask for workshop. It’s amazing. I can’t say enough good things about how it has changed my classroom for the better, and it’s really because I read this book that I opted to try it out. One thing I’d like to see: an update of this book with consideration of using technology tools. Ron Berger carries around a massive amount of original student work, and digitizing it or doing the projects using digital tools would really help. A new section explaining how to do that would be great (I volunteer as tribute, if the folks at Heinemann or Ron Berger himself are interested).

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you might remember the summer I went to a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute. It was phenomenal. The performance-based methods advocated by Folger have increased my students’ engagement in Shakespeare and have helped them grapple with his language and themes. I have used Folger methods with students of all backgrounds and levels, and they just work. I couldn’t teach without this book. It makes me sad that there isn’t one for every play I’d consider teaching, but this volume has Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Macbeth, and two other volumes have been published that incorporate 1) Hamlet and Henry IV, Part One and 2) Twelfth Night and Othello. I would love to see one on Julius Caesar. I think that play is hard to teach, and it is so frequently taught. Could be useful. Anyone want to go in with me to design a good Caesar unit? Let me know.

Penny Kittle’s book Write Beside Them: Risk, Voice, and Clarity in High School Writing helped me understand the importance of modeling, of the teacher as learner. The book includes a DVD, so you can see Penny’s writing workshop in progress. She discusses how her students keep writer’s notebooks, how she incorporates minilessons and conferences, the ways in which she teaches genre, and how she assesses. It’s fantastic.

I have a lot of books on my shelf that I really need to get through. Hopefully, with some changes coming soon, I’ll have some time to do that.

So now it’s time for the real conversation: which resources do you recommend?

Just for the purposes of full disclosure, I’m an Amazon associate; however, none of the authors or publishers have offered me compensation for sharing these books, and I share these books with you because they have truly been helpful to me. The associate links are a convenience for those who wish to purchase from Amazon.

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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

photo by: JD Hancock

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Why Fiction Matters

Our EscapeGrant Wiggins made a lot of waves yesterday with a post the ASCD blog The Edge in which he calls for banning the reading of fiction in schools in order to encourage boys to read and help students improve nonfiction reading skills. He says he wrote meaning to provoke, and he certainly did. The blog doesn’t provide a means of linking to comments, but I felt a voice of reason in those comments was Estelene Boratenski. She’s right in pointing out that people listen to Wiggins, and it wasn’t clear that he was writing in the spirit of A Modest Proposal. I don’t have a lot to add to the public outcry.

If you have read any of my archives, you know I’ve long been a proponent of backward design. It just makes sense pedagogically. Wiggins and writing partner Jay McTighe wrote about backward design in Understanding by Design, which remains the single most influential professional reading I’ve ever done. Wiggins was very kind to my readers and to the participants at the UbD Educators wiki. For a short period of time, I blogged with Grant at a now-defunct group blog about educational matters. I have the highest respect for Grant Wiggins.

I also have the highest respect for fiction’s ability to teach us about who we are. I think one thing we need to do to engage boys in high school reading is to offer them choices, but one cannot generalize that boys necessarily like nonfiction more than fiction, and I have known boys who have enjoyed reading such fare as Wuthering Heights, Beloved, and The Scarlet Letter. I think a lot of fiction isn’t taught in a way that necessarily grabs boys, and that’s where backward design comes in. It gives the literature teacher a hook—an issue the novel grapples with that makes for interesting discussion. It is for this reason that one of the essential questions that frames discussion in my classroom for the year in my British Literature and Composition course is How do our stories shape us? How do we shape the world around us with stories?

I wouldn’t argue that we currently incorporate enough nonfiction into our curricula. I think nonfiction is important. I also don’t quibble with the idea that we need to do something to get boys to read. Guys Read is on to something there, I think. I also don’t argue about the fact that we need to examine the choices we make in terms of what books are taught. But I don’t think throwing fiction out the window is the solution.

Literature, fiction, shows us who we are. It teaches us about the human condition. In the words of Hemingway, arguably that most male of writers, “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and the afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and places and how the weather was.”

That, to me, seems to be the best reason to teach fiction.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Felipe Morin

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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UbD Educators Wiki

I recently posed a question for discussion on the UbD Educators wiki. At this point, the wiki has over 100 members, and one would think it would be more active, but to get down to brass tacks, I’m the most active member of the wiki. The wiki is not closed to lurkers, so if all you wanted to do was get ideas for teaching, you wouldn’t need to join. Lurkers cannot edit pages or join discussions, however. I am interested to know what can be done to make the wiki more of a true repository of UbD units and discussion. I use the wiki when I am planning a new major unit, and I have found the two templates, the UbD Filter and the UbD Unit, to be helpful when planning units. The feedback at the start was very good, but member involvement has declined somewhat.

I spent some time today tagging pages in the hopes that the information might be easier to find. As always, I encourage members to join up and contribute. We have no math, science, fine arts, foreign language, physical education, or special education units, and we have only one (one!!!) technology education unit and one social studies unit. I suspect a lot of members teach these subjects, and often when people join up, they tell me they are doing so because their school or district is encouraging or requiring UbD; therefore, we ought to have more units in those areas, I should think.

UbD is something I strongly believe in. I have seen it bring more transfer, coherence, and, well, understanding to my own teaching. Planning using UbD guidelines makes me think about all aspects of what I teach and helps me plan more authentic lessons. One compliment I received from a student is that I always “try to make [learning] relevant to our lives.” Creating more authentic audiences for writing tasks has been a goal of mine this year, too, and planning using UbD has helped. I truly feel that this wiki could be an excellent tool, but I admit that right now I feel a bit like I’m in an echo chamber over there.

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I Like Projects

A conversation*:

“Mrs. Huff, are we going to do another project soon?”

“Fairly soon.  I want to finish The Iliad.”

“I really like projects.  I think they’re better than quizzes or tests because you really think about it and analyze it more.”

“I agree.”

“Plus I know when I study tests, I might do fine, but I forget it like a month later.”

“I know.”

“But with projects, I think about it from more angles and I enjoy it more.”

“We’ll do some more projects, but we have to do papers, too because composition is important.”

“Papers are cool, too.  But I really like projects.”

Out of the mouths of babes.

*Paraphrased because I recount it here about 5 or 6 hours after it occurred.

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Back to School

I’ve said this every year, but I’ll say it again: you sure can tell when school starts again around this blog.  Anyway, our students come back on Wednesday, and my own children went back today, so I feel like we’re all back in the saddle.

Meanwhile, I’ve had a few new visitors coming by looking for UbD information, and I thought I’d make it easier for you.  First, these are my “reading journals” for Understanding by Design in which I reflected on what I was reading and posted here:

Of course, I invite and encourage any interested teachers to join us at the UbD Educators wiki to share and obtain feedback on unit plans (or perhaps borrow those shared by others).

Meanwhile, once I get back in the swing of my schedule, I should have more time to write, although I start grad school on the 25th, which I imagine will make me busy again.

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The Death of the Salesmen: A Flat World Lens for Arthur Miller’s Play

Regular readers of my blog know I am really invested in backward design (Understanding by Design or UbD).  I have several UbD units posted over at the UbD Educators wiki, but I decided maybe I should explain them a little bit more just in case you are interested in using them.

After I wrote my UbD unit for Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, I was really excited to explore it with my students.  At the time, I had either just finished or was in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.  Friedman actually mentions Willy Loman in the book, and it occurred to me the play could appeal to my students if we looked at it through a modern lens — outsourcing, or what Friedman refers to as “the Death of the Salesmen.”  I tied one of the themes of the play — that the world has passed Willy by and gradually made him obsolete as he failed to keep up — with a very real phenomenon in our society.  Outsourcing is a huge concern in America, and over the last few decades in particular, we have also seen some jobs eliminated by technology.

My essential questions for the unit are as follows:

  • What is the American Dream? Why do some achieve it while others are cut out?
  • What is the importance of being “well liked” and popular?
  • How do we form our identities?
  • How do capitalism and modernization affect American workers?

Through exploring these question, I hoped my students would come to the following understandings:

  • The American dream is an undercurrent of American society, but is not attainable by all in our society.
  • Popularity and being well-liked do not necessarily equal success.
  • Our identities are formed in a variety of ways, including our family of origin, our career choice(s), and our hopes and dreams.
  • Capitalism and modernization are forces that have great impact on American society.

By the end of the unit, I hoped my students would be able to do the following:

  • Analyze the impact of globalization and modernization on society and compare it to the “outsourcing” of Willy Loman.
  • Synthesize information about globalization and modernization from various sources.
  • Determine what skills 21st century workers will need in order to be successful in a global economy.
  • Evaluate how globalization and modernization will impact the concept of the American Dream, how we form our identities, and how we define success or become successful.
  • Relate Death of a Salesman‘s themes and message to American life in the 21st century.

First, we read the play, all the while having discussings about how Willy could be a modern character.  The 1940′s, when the play was written, seem very far away from our students today, but I think this play is very modern in many ways, which I addressed in my essential questions.

After we read the play, we watched Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod’s video “Did You Know?” and discussed the ideas it presents:

We watched an episode of The Simpsons about outsourcing called “Kiss Kiss Bang Bangalore”:

Finally, we viewed a Discovery Times special featuring Thomas Friedman called “The Other Side of Outsourcing”:

I have discussion questions for each of these videos, and it occurs to me I probably should have put them on my flash drive so I could upload them here.  I will update this post in the future and attach the proper documents to the bottom of the post.

We also read excerpts of The World is Flat; specifically, we read “Death of the Salesmen” (256-259) from chapter four “The Great Sorting Out” and chapter six “The Untouchables” (278-307).  Page number refer to the edition of the book I linked.  Again, there are guided study questions.

Finally we synthesized all we had seen and read in a discussion that centered around the following questions:

  1. How can outsourcing possibly produce more Willy Lomans?
  2. What do Americans need to do in the 21st century to avoid the fate of Willy Loman?
  3. What sort of shift do you think will happen in the concept of the American Dream?

Then I gave my students their job, which was to explore these questions in a handbook created for either high school graduates or college graduates (I assigned them randomly on the suggestion of our Learning Specialist) that would be a helpful guide for young people navigating our increasingly flattening world.  I asked the students to consider the following in their handbooks:

  1. What will the graduates need to do to ensure they always have a job?
  2. What will they need to do to compete in a global economy? What skills will they need?
  3. What do you recommend they do to stand out, to become “untouchable”?
  4. How is Death of a Salesman a cautionary tale in a flat world? — Draw a parallel betweeen the fate of Willy Loman and the possible fate of many other American workers today. What can readers of your handbook do to avoid his fate?

I am not going to lie and say the assignment was a blazing success.  I will say the reason it wasn’t was most likely due to the particular makeup of students I had and the fact that they were seniors who were checked out.  I do believe it would be engaging for different students.  It wasn’t a total failure either.  I do think the students enjoyed examining these questions and thinking about them.  Only about half of them really wanted to do the assignment, though.  That half did a really nice job.  Given the time of year and particular makeup of the class, I consider the unit as a whole a success, and I would definitely do it again.  What I like about the assignment is that it enables students to examine literature through a modern lens, and I think they enjoyed it more than they otherwise would have.

Here is a link to the UbD unit over at the wiki, and here is a printer-friendly link.

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Reflecting on Backward Design

The end of the year is drawing closer, and today I was thinking about backward design.  This year was the first year I implemented backward design planning.  I have been really impressed with how much students have learned.  My 9th grade students in particular really seemed to connect to this type of learning; furthermore, unless I’m a horrible judge, they have seemed more engaged than I can remember any other class being.  Today they started working on the performance assessment for the unit I created for Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye.  Students were researching and writing about the impact of media and society on how people feel about their bodies.  At the same time as they were analyzing a novel’s theme, they were also writing persuasive essays about body image, using research to support writing, and learning about ways in which literature truly can be a lens through which we examine our society.  In times past, I don’t think I would have designed an assessment nearly as good as this one, and students were clearly interested in what they were learning through their research.  They frequently called me over to read facts and statistics they found.  They wanted me to read what they had written.  One student began her essay with an anecdote that integrated information she learned from a YouTube video I showed the class.  And it was a brilliant introduction.

I know I sound like an evangelist when I talk about UbD, but I can’t help it.  Backward design revolutionized the way I teach.  I feel rejuvenated and invigorated by working with my students.  And I am learning so much, too!  Every day, I just can’t wait to work with students on the units I’ve created.  I truly enjoy planning and creating units now that I have a clear process that helps me focus and think about why I do what I do.  I am really proud of all my students have learned and are learning, and much credit for those learning experiences belongs to UbD.

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