Authentic Writing Tasks

As a 9th and 10th grade World History teacher, sometimes I struggle with making history relevant to my students.  This year, thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute’s We the Students Scholarship Contest, I didn’t have to, the $5,000 top prize was more than enough to motivate my students. They were eager to struggle with questions like: What are the ideals in the Declaration of Independence? What are the ideals of America? What are some of your personal ideals? The vast majority of my students wrote two hand-written drafts before typing three pages double-spaced to meet the early bird deadline of November 15.

BOR Inst

The essay prompt: In 800 words or fewer, please answer the following question: “Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.”

Dr. Strojny helped me brainstorm some prewriting tasks that would make this assignment easier for students. First, what are the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence? For this class activity students were split into 13 groups of three or four where they had to close read the Declaration and translate what it actually said. Each group then brought their “translation” up to the document camera, projected it to the class and explained it. Then we compared them to a simplified list of grievances. The students copied the 22 grievances into their binders before leaving class.

For homework, I asked the students do a 15 minute quick write about which ideals, or grievances they thought would be most important, or easy to relate to issues today.  We had a quick discussion that went like this:  Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – they have all heard about this —but don’t  know what it means? Examples to think about: Right to Life: Death penalty, abortion rights/right to life, food assistance for poor families, access to healthcare aka Obamacare.

Liberty:  Civil rights, such as right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, freedom of movement and freedom from government surveillance (think about Edward Snowden, the internet), incarceration rates and three-strikes laws for non-violent offenders such as drug users, freedom to vote and new voter ID laws.

Right to Happiness: What does it mean to be happy? Access to employment, secure jobs, student loans, drug laws, expansion of marriage laws to same-sex couples.

Writing the Dec

That government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed: Do our voter turnout numbers suggest that we consent to being governed by today’s leaders? What about Scotland’s recent referendum? What would happen if people in the U.S. wanted to secede, like the anti-Obama secession petitions in Texas?

Do students understand that the framers were morally compelled to violent revolution because all men have the moral duty—the OBLIGATION– to rebel against governments that do not fulfill these natural laws—the Occupy movement, School Walkouts in CO, acts of civil disobedience.  Do we have a moral duty to rebel against bad laws? What does it mean when we don’t vote? When we don’t attend protests? Etc. Do young people today feel this obligation?

It was an exhilarating assignment. Could I keep the excitement going through numerous drafts?  More in my next post.

History Assessments of Thinking

Joel Breakstone wrote that two of the most readily available test item types, multiple-choice questions and document-based questions (DBQs), are poorly suited for formative assessment. Breakstone and his colleagues at SHEG have designed History Assessments of Thinking (HATs) that measure both content knowledge and historical thinking skills. HATs measure disciplinary skills through engagement with primary sources. Teachers using HATs must interpret student responses and enact curricular revisions using their pedagogical content knowledge, something that may prove difficult with new, or poorly-trained teachers.

SHEG

To use HATs, teachers must understand the question, be familiar with the historical content, evaluate student responses, diagnose student mistakes, develop remediation, and implement the intervention. Teachers must possess an understanding of what makes learning easy or difficult and ways of formulating the subject that make it comprehensible to others. In designing HATs, Breakstone sought to collect data on cognitive validity, or the relationship between the constructs targeted by the assessments and the cognitive processes students use to answer them. This would help teachers interpret student responses and use that information to make curricular changes. Formative assessments in history depend on teachers being able to quickly diagnose student understanding. Assessments based on historical thinking represent a huge shift from the norm in history classrooms. For formative assessment to become routine, teachers will need extensive professional development and numerous other supports.

Sipress & Voelker (2011) write eloquently about the rise and fall of the coverage model in history instruction. This tension has been revitalized as educators eagerly anticipate which testing methodologies will be used for the “fewer, deeper” Common Core assessments and what I call the “Marv Alkin overkill method” of using at least four items to assess each content standard. This results in end of year history assessments that are 80 questions or more. Breadth vs. depth arguments have existed forever in education, Jay Mathews illustrates this by asking if teachers should focus on a few topics so students have time to absorb and comprehend the inner workings of the subject? Or should teachers cover every topic so students get a sense of the whole and can later pursue those parts that interest them most?

Something that may settle this debate is one of the more interesting developments in ed tech. The nexus of machine learning and student writing is a controversial and competitive market. Turnitin recently demonstrated that it is looking to move beyond plagiarism detection and into the automated writing feedback market with a recent acquisition. If my wife allowed me to gamble, I would bet that one of the testing consortiums, either Smarter Balanced or PARCC, will soon strike a deal with one of the eight automated essay grading vendors to grade open-ended questions on their standardized tests. Lightside Labs will pilot test their product with the Gates Foundation in 2015 and get it to market in 2016, just a little too late to be included in the first wave of Common Core assessments. I wonder if HAT assessments would be able to incorporate some automated scoring technology and settle the depth versus breadth debate in assessing history?

Writing Historical Narratives

storytelling-copy

The Common Core’s addition of narrative writing is likely to challenge many History/Social Science teachers that are unfamiliar with this type of writing. Students are now expected to write narratives that develop real or imagined experiences, and/or events using well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Since only six percent of my class or eleven out of my 183 high school students chose to write a historical narrative on our last formative assessment, I created a task that would increase their storytelling abilities about the principles of Judaism. Instead of outlining, I asked them to cluster or bubble map the main ideas from the textbook chapter. We use the 2007 California edition of World History: The Modern World (pp. 28-32) by Pearson Prentice Hall. Most students had one to two pages of events and people that they could use to create their narrative. Prior to beginning their writing, they also had a full day of instruction on period-specific vocabulary. For homework the students also viewed the Crash Course video series segment on Judaism. Lastly, students viewed a short, online video on narrative writing tips and techniques. The video was played once in class and posted online so students could view it again from home.

The prompt and directions were:

You have a 53 minute class period to write a Historical narrative about the Jewish people. Use your cluster map to provide details. This task requires you to tell a story about a historical time period, blending facts with imagined characters and situations.

  • Use one person’s point of view (a central character)
  • Use chronological organization and transitions
  • Describe people who actually lived and events that actually happened. However, you may include fictional people and details.
  • Show you have an accurate understanding of historic events and details of actual places

I use word count as a proxy for student effort and as a goal-setting strategy. Thus, I always like to display the number of words each class period writes.  I then compare each class mean. I try to generate some competition between the classes. Why do you think period three wrote almost 150 more words than period 1?

Word Prod Means

The chart above compares the average number of words written by each of my five classes.
Number 6 is the average of all five means. A total of 176 essays were turned in.

The factors I looked for in these narratives were: 1) a creative title; 2) word count; 3) main character point of view. During my readings, I discovered that a small group of students had misunderstood the assignment and had made their historical characters into outlandish fictional people doing things that had no relevance to the historical period. In my debrief with the students, I will remind them that the purpose of the assignment was to show an accurate understanding of historic events and details of actual places.

The majority of my students picked a historical character and remained in that character for their entire writing assignment. One or two students misunderstood the assignment and wrote one or two paragraphs from the perspective of each Moses, Abraham, David, and Solomon. I attributed this to students not listening carefully enough to the directions. The charts below compare student performance on my last two writing tasks.

Word Prod Means by Period

Evaluating Intro Paragraphs

This post is the third in a series on how to assign student writing and provide feedback without infringing on instructional time. In my flipped classroom, I am able to put content lectures online and spend class time conferencing with my students on improving their writing. These samples are introductory paragraphs to informative and explanatory and historical narrative prompts I assigned students on the ancient Greek philosophers.

PROMPT #2:

Write an informative/explanatory essay about the lives of the big three Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Include biographical facts as well as the contributions each philosopher made to Western political thought.

SAMPLE A

Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were three great philosophers. All three of them were connected in some sort of way. There lives were very different in many ways.

SAMPLE B

The three subjects I will talk about are Aristotle, Plato’s and Socartes. They are all greek philosophers. Aristotles, plato’s and Socartes are all very similar. They all play a part of the economic structure and culture like laws and citizenship.

SAMPLE C

One of these famous philosophers name was Socretes. He was a stone mason and philosopher. All the things we know about him comes from Plato. Plato was Socrates’s famous student. Socretes was also known for asking questions around Athens. But, the people of Athens got fed up and put him on trial when he was 70 years old. 280 people voted Socrates guilty and sentenced him to death. Socrates thought they should be paying him. But, unfortunately he died by drinking poison.

PROMPT #3:

Write a historical narrative retelling the Suicide of Socrates from one character’s point of view (Socrates, Apollodorus, or Crito). Tell the story of why Socrates was put on trial, what happened at the trial, and what happened at the end of the trial.

SAMPLE A

When Socrates was 70 years old, he was put on trial. He was accused of corrupting the city’s youth and failing to respect the gods. In the jury there was 501 citizens. The jurors condemned him to death.

SAMPLE B

I am Socrates, I was an Athenian stonemason and philosopher. Most of what people know about me comes from my most famous student Plato. I didn’t write any books instead. I went to the marketplace and questioned citizens about their beliefs. I often ask the question “What is the greatest good?” To me this exam of questions was a way to help others seek truth and self knowledge, but to Athenians such questions threatened accepted traditions.

SAMPLE C

The year was 399, I had to stand in front of 500 of my fellow Athenians. I was trialed for supposedly “corrupting the youth.” How outrages! All I did was spread my thoughts and teachings! Anyways, I knew, if I were to be guilty, I might be given the death penalty. The trial took place in the heart of Athens. Many people knew who I was. I am 70 years old. I had many anti-democratic points of view, that might have brought me here.

As I conference with each student, I will employ rubrics from the Literacy Design Collaborative that evaluate argumentative, informative, and narrative writing. Students will assess themselves first, before I comment on their work. Adhering to Mike Schmoker’s advice from Write More, Grade Less – I will only provide feedback on improving introductory paragraphs and will ask them to revise and complete this assignment.

Evaluating Student Writing

Following up on my earlier post on Historical Writing Prompts, this article will describe the results of a formative assessment on the Ancient Greek Philosophers for a 9th/10th grade World History class. This population of students was able to choose which type of writing task they wanted to complete (argument, informative, or narrative). They wrote a total of 183 essays that ranged between 18 and 640 words, with an average of 255 words per essay. From the results, it is clear these students needed additional instruction on (1) titling their essays to indicate which prompt they had selected, (2) specific instruction on rephrasing the prompt in their first two sentences, and (3) assistance in writing an introductory paragraph that organizes their thoughts and contains a thesis statement.

In this post, I will provide three samples from the argumentative writing prompt and ask students to vote for the strongest piece of student writing. Student work is typed verbatim; typos, misspellings, grammatical errors, and factual mistakes are intentionally included.

PROMPT #1:

Argue that Plato and Aristotle held an essentially positive (or negative) view of human nature. In a well-reasoned essay, support your position using at least three of the quotes below as evidence to support your position.

SAMPLE A

Aristotle and Plato have made many quotes and many historians and people argue for the meaning of these quotes. In this paper I will discuss these quotes and put in my opinion. There will be showing if they are positive or negative.

SAMPLE B

The 3 quotes I will be talking about were from 2 famous philosophers, Aristotle and Plato. I will be showing you how powerful these quotes are and what they mean to me. I will be deciding if each quote represents a positive or negative view of human nature. These quotes would never mean the same thing to other people because of their opinions, and how they see on there own perspective. The first quote will be on Aristotle.

SAMPLE C

The meaning of “A good and wise life is the wealth that brings happiness” To me a good and wise life is having money and having your dream job. Also having a wonderful family. And having to see them everyday and having no worries. And no crime in the world.

Historical Writing Prompts

Many History teachers are reluctant to assign writing tasks because providing the necessary feedback slows down the pace of a course and reduces the amount of content one can cover. I think this is a false dichotomy and believe teachers can use writing tasks to help students gain a deeper understanding of historical content, thus, the rationale for this blog and MOOC.

Writing

Since state testing was suspended last year, I doubled down on the amount of writing I usually assign and my World History students wrote twelve argumentative essays, or DBQs. At the beginning of the year, my students (mostly 10th graders) wrote an average of 182 words per essay, by the end of the year, their word production grew 57% to 322 words per essay. These essays paraphrased, or explained an average of 3 documents (out of 6-8 document sets) and contained more three citations per essay.

This year, I will again assess students at the end of each unit with a historical writing task. However, I will center my focus on the Common Core writing standards, which demand increased emphasis on informative/explanatory writing and historical narrative. 

CC Inf Standard

I developed three essay prompts to assess the content knowledge of my students and provide differentiation. Instead of giving students all the same prompt, they will have three to choose from. This blog-space will report on the results and illustrate how History teachers can become writing instructors without skimping on content delivery. Subsequent posts will co-opt the format of the award-winning book, They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, in order to model how teachers can help students improve their historical writing.

PROMPT #1 Argue that Plato and Aristotle held an essentially positive (or negative) view of human nature. In a well-reasoned essay, support your position using at least three of the quotes below as evidence to support your position.

Greek Quotes

Prompt #2 Write an informative/explanatory essay about the lives of the big three Ancient Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Include biographical facts as well as the contributions each philosopher made to Western political thought.

Prompt #3 Write a historical narrative retelling the Suicide of Socrates from one character’s point of view (Socrates, Apollodorus, or Crito). Tell the story of why Socrates was put on trial, what happened at the trial, and what happened at the end of the trial.

In my directions to students, I note that all essays should follow the five-paragraph format (skipping lines between paragraphs) with an introduction/background paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph. My next few posts will discuss the results of these assessments and include some tips on showing students how to improve their writing.

Twittercide of Socrates

The Suicide of Socrates – a rhyming tweetathon was inspired by Dan Krutka & Michael Milton’s terrific work, which is paraphrased, or heavily borrowed from below. If you would like to steal their great ideas, follow them on Twitter @dankrutka & @42ThinkDeep, respectively.

Even though young people are increasingly using social media in their everyday lives, educators have been slow to explore how they can extend the classroom online. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) reported that students face a “digital disconnect” as they walk into social studies classrooms and are forced to unplug from the online world where they spend most of their time and energy. Many schools and districts block popular social media sites and ask students to keep their cell phones turned off and put away while in class. These short-sighted policies most likely prevent contemporary educators from adding an essential ingredient crucial to student engagement – relevance.

Soc Tweets 3

Twitter is a microblogging service where users send “small bursts of information,” called “tweets,” to others. Using Twitter with students can provide an opportunity to model valuable skills and dispositions regarding digital citizenship and social media literacies. Informal online learning environments that many young people freely join may result in the creation of participatory cultures that represent ideal learning environments.

Soc Tweets 2

Krutka & Milton (2013) summarized an emerging body of research that has examined the use of Twitter in education. Most students voluntarily backchannel with Twitter and this increases the understanding of course concepts. Tweeting is useful for encouraging concise writing and has even be used with first and second grade students to scaffold writing for an authentic audience — their families. Other research suggests that tweeting encourages the informal learning, or background knowledge that helps students connect their schema to a course curriculum. Also, Twitter may increase metacognitive function by promoting succinct reflection.

With this foundation, I decided to try to make the suicide of Socrates more relevant to my 9th & 10th grade World History students by asking them to read a primary source, retell it in rhyme, and then we would vote on the best examples by retweeting and favoriting couplets of their work. I motivated students by showing a Dan Pink video – http://www.danpink.com/2013/06/how-to-pitch-better-the-rhyming-pitch. The primary source is located here: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/socrates.htm and the rhyming dictionary is here: http://www.rhymezone.com/. Students submitted their version of the story in at least 10 rhyming couplets. There was considerable variation in quality in the final products. The end results were highly entertaining. You can see the best couplets on Twitter by searching under the hashtag #PetriWH. Students were given a master list of the 20 best rhymes and were directed to cut the list down to 10 and properly sequence them with a beginning, middle, and end. Student engagement was high during this narrative writing exercise. This post publishes some of the better examples. We will see if this scaffolding exercise makes their formal essays better next week. A game-based formative assessment tool measured their knowledge in a fun and engaging fashion https://play.kahoot.it/#/k/16093094-257a-47c5-a48c-13c2377d8171. The big takeaway for me was that asking students to use Twitter as an educational tool was something they responded to positively. Thus, educators may be well-served to incorporate Twitter and other social media, in order to meet students in their digital world and provide 21st Century relevance to an age-old lesson. If you are not in a 1:1 classroom, your students don’t have access to Twitter, or you suffer from tech-phobia, feel free to use this template.

Soc Tweets 1

References

Krutka, D., & Milton, M. (2013). The Enlightenment meets Twitter: Using social media in the social studies classroom. Ohio Social Studies Review. Volume 50, Issue 12. Fall 2013.