A simple rubric for on-demand writing

6.1 Designing Student Assessments around Criteria and Standards: Assessment criteria and standards are clear.

Ensuring that assessment criteria and standards are clear requires teachers to know exactly which skills and levels of understanding they expect students to master, and to communicate those expectations plainly to students. Rubrics can help with both tasks. Shermis and Di Vesta (2011) outline three key steps to formulate good rubrics:

  • identify a critical dimension of behavior at a particular developmental level
  • articulate the rubric to a point that different evaluators can obtain consistency
  • communicate with learners what is expected of them (paraphrase, p. 137).

On-demand writing about literature requires particularly succinct and quickly comprehensible rubrics, since students have a limited amount of time in which to develop their ideas about the text and form them into an organized, focused, and convincing essay. At the end of our Voice and Protest unit, I wanted to assess whether our 10th-grade honors students were able to synthesize multiple vignettes from our anchor text, Fountain and Tomb, in order to support an interpretive claim about the implications of the book’s structure. Students knew there would be a final in-class essay about the book, but were not given the prompts ahead of time. When they arrived, they were given the following, on a half-sheet of paper:


For each question I included brief directions on how to create a focused, supported answer: “Choose one (reason or influence/effect or theme) to focus on and use specific textual evidence from three different vignettes.” These directions reminded the students of two critical dimensions of strong writing that we had focused on throughout the unit (focused claims/theses and citing specific textual evidence, either in the form of concrete details or exact quotations); they also prompted students to see this as a synthesis task, one that required combining evidence from multiple stories to infer a big idea about the text’s format and purpose. In this sense, the prompts themselves are part of the rubric, because they identify the writing standards and imply the critical reading task for the assessment. Since I provided three high-level prompts to choose among, students had some power to shape their own assessment experience according to individual interest or preference.

The half sheet next articulates those standards further by delineating the three components on which I will base my evaluation. I have included quantitative expectations (one claim, at least three pieces of evidence from three different vignettes) as well as descriptive ones (claim is focused, evidence is clearly related, adequate analysis follows). In the preceding unit we worked on how to choose strong evidence in support of an argument, and how to analyze evidence by picking it apart and paying close attention to the exact language of quotations, the context surrounding details and quotations, and the implications of word choice and syntax. Consequently, students were familiar with those (bold-type) descriptors.

Because I wanted my students to use their time thinking deeply about the prompts and developing their written responses, I planned an assignment format that would take less than five minutes to read, comprehend, and question for clarification. I chose to present grading criteria as bullet-point descriptions of what a successful in-class essay would include, and to limit the criteria to three, with equal point value. When I asked for clarifying questions, I received three: one question about how many paragraphs I wanted students to write; one question about whether they only needed one piece of evidence from each vignette; and one about whether they could use three pieces of evidence from one or two vignettes instead of dealing with three vignettes total. These questions indicated to me that students understood my descriptive criteria (i.e., what it meant to have clearly related evidence and adequate analysis) and the purpose of the assignment (i.e., level of thinking required by the prompts) but not what the final product should look like. Consequently, one change I would make to this assignment in the future would be to spend some class time beforehand discussing the differences between common types of on-demand writing (for example, a claim paragraph used as a reading quiz, versus an in-class essay at the end of a unit) and presenting a few “real-life” student work examples of each.


Shermis, M. and Di Vesta, F. (2011). Classroom Assessment in Action. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Double duty: vocabulary tools that both teach and assess

6. Assessment: The teacher uses multiple data elements (both formative and summative) to plan, inform and adjust instruction and evaluate student learning.

As an ELL tutor, I particularly need effective methods for evaluating  my students’ vocabulary acquisition and use. I must gather information about which words my students know, which words they need to learn in order to read and understand the texts they will encounter in their high school classrooms, which words they are familiar with but do not fully comprehend the meaning of, and which words they understand but do not use according to the rules of standard English.

Much of this information gathering constitutes formative assessment, assessment for (future) learning. It enables me to target key words for direct vocabulary instruction. It helps me modify my own vocabulary and define unfamiliar words so my students understand me. And it informs future decisions about which texts will be “just right” for my students and which grammar conventions will require further explanation and practice. Much formative vocabulary assessment occurs informally, as I note students’ ability to use words correctly during discussion, question them about the texts we’re reading, and listen carefully to see whether their fluency reflects comprehension in the form of accurate expression and phrasing while reading aloud.

But some of this information gathering around vocabulary constitutes summative assessment, assessment of (past) learning. I and my students need to know whether they are retaining learned vocabulary, whether they fully understand connotated and denotated meanings, and whether they can use new words accurately. In short, we need to know whether their increased “word banks” are truly increasing their power with the English Language.

This year I am tutoring a small group of 10th-grade English Language Learners who are very recent immigrants to the United States. Our work together centers around the theme, The Power of Reading, and one focus of our first unit is vocabulary building, in alignment with the following Common Core standard:

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression. (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016)

One way in which I will assess students’ vocabulary throughout the unit is through careful listening and observation. In order to make sure that what I hear and observe informs lesson planning throughout the unit, I need to keep track of what I notice. The following image records my teaching notes from the first unit lesson.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 1

I have recorded observations on students’ vocabulary knowledge (all students able to come up with the word “famous” in response to a hint). I also comment on their ownership of the vocabulary (all 3 students could apply the vocabulary to themselves, by listing qualities they were known for) and some remaining confusion around the vocabulary (unclear about the difference between being famous vs. being famous for something). Holistic vocabulary assessments should include information about students’ personal and conceptual relationship to language, as well as their ability to define and use a word. I record assessment notes on my lesson plan for the day, which allows me to correlate what I observe about student learning to a specific learning activity, and helps me revise future lesson plans in accordance with what students need to review and practice.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 2

As you can see from my second day’s teaching notes, students were able to apply the learned vocabulary (applied “famous” vocab.) in response to our warm-up activity, “share one thing that made you feel successful yesterday.” The notes at the top of the page record my observations about how well students understood the word summary, both conceptually (what summary is) and practically (what a good summary does).

Another way in which I will assess vocabulary acquisition throughout the unit is with vocabulary boxes. These boxes are a powerful instructional tool, a way to reinforce new words through repetition, application, categorization, and visual representation. Each week, my students create five “vocab boxes” according to the following instructions:


Ms. Ellen’s vocab box assignment…and assessment tool!

Because they require students to use the word in a sentence, vocabulary boxes enable me to assess students’ syntactical skill. Because the boxes require students to draw a picture of the word, I can assess how fully they understand it and whether they can visualize it for themselves. And because the boxes require students to identify the word as a verb, noun, or adjective, I am also able to assess my students’ understanding of English grammar in relation to the word. Since students work on these in class, I am able to correct early misconceptions, to evaluate whether I have chosen useful and important words, and to revise instruction or assignments accordingly. Because students turn in five vocabulary boxes each week, I have a concrete measure of their progress throughout the unit.

Students choose their words from a list of key words I have compiled while reading the text. A list for for this unit can be seen below.


Vocabulary Word List for Just Juice

I chose words that are important for understanding the story (such as “weld,” “truant,” and “diabetes”), words with broad application across disciplines because they have multiple meanings (“bitter”), words that require nuanced conceptual understanding (“might” and “pretend”), and words that provide opportunity for syntax discussion and learning because they can function in multiple roles (such as “growl” and “fiddle” which can be both nouns and verbs). At the end of the unit we will take a comprehensive vocabulary test, probably in the form of writing ten complete sentences using ten (randomly chosen) words from the list. For summative vocabulary assessments, I always require students to use (apply) the vocabulary, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a round-robin, additive “story quiz,” sometimes in the form of a graded academic discussion that incorporates new vocabulary, and sometimes in the form of a game such as pictionary or charades. When a student can use a new word correctly in a sentence (or story or discussion or game) I know that student has truly mastered it, and will be able to apply their expanded vocabulary to future learning.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6). Retrieved from corestandards.org on October 16, 2016

Comprehensive reading quizzes

4.3 Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Learning Activities: All of the learning activities are suitable to students or to the instructional outcomes, and most represent significant cognitive challenge, with some differentiation for different groups of students. 

As a reading teacher, significant cognitive challenge means ensuring that student responses to texts always involve critical thinking. But in order to think critically about what they are reading, students need to read it. Occasional quizzes motivate students to keep up with required reading, enabling them to participate fully in class discussions and maximize the benefits of in-class instruction and support.

But reading quizzes should require more than plot summary and character identification. As Daniels and Zemelman (2014) explain, “All these mental acrobatics remind us that readers actively build and construct meaning from a text. Meaning does not simply reside on the page” (p. 30). Textual understanding requires an ability to take apart and analyze different components of a piece of writing, then reassemble them to produce meaning for the individual reader. Our reading assessments, like our reading instruction, ought to focus on these complex (“higher order” in Bloom’s taxonomy) analysis and synthesis tasks.

This past fall, our 10th-grade Honors class included a unit on Voice and Protest. Naguib Mahfouz’s Fountain and Tomb, a collection of vignettes set in early 19th-century Cairo, served as the common class text for this unit. Many students found the genre unfamiliar, and struggled to make sense of individual stories while still identifying connections among them. We wrote the following  reading quiz to assess whether students were able to understand those thematic connections and apply them to specific vignettes. According to the reading schedule, we were about a third of the way through the book. As students entered class the following directions awaited them on the screen.



The reading quiz clearly required higher-order thinking skills, including application of the concept of theme, synthesis of at least two different stories from the collection, and analysis of literary evidence to support a claim. We had provided some direct instruction around themes in literature, including having students keep a set of notes organized by thematic category. But we had not yet differentiated between theme (a recurring “big idea” in a text) and theme statement (what a text says about that big idea). In addition, I noted that students who had honors Language Arts as ninth graders were more facile at identifying themes in our previous novel, The Kite Runner,  than students who had taken a general education 9th grade Language Arts class. So rather than asking students to identify or name a theme independently, I gave them three themes to choose from. In this sense, the task began with a “mid-level” thinking skill, application of a concept, then required students to synthesize two (or more) stories in order to explore the concept and to explain how specific aspects of the text supported their understanding of theme.

Quiz results demonstrated strong ability to find a common theme and to identify the theme “at work” in at least two separate stories, no surprise since we had outlined several pertinent themes. Most students were also able to identify textual evidence that related to the theme and supported their claim that “this theme is important in this story.” On the other hand, many students did not refine their presentation of the theme or explain what those individual stories told us about how politics or class or coming of age impacted the characters’ experiences or the author’s choice of words or narrative structure. On the basis of this assessment, we decided to devote more instructional time to close readings of individual vignettes. The following week, students worked in groups to present tableaux of assigned vignettes. Their tableaux demonstrated increased understanding both of plot and character, and of refinement of theme. For example, each group accurately chose and inflected a thematically central piece of dialogue for characters to “quote” as they acted out their tableaux.

One thing I would change on a future reading quiz for this book would be to allow students to choose their own theme, rather than providing a choice of preset themes. I circulate throughout the classroom during quizzes, and could easily provide scaffolding in the form of hints or further questions to help struggling students name a theme they felt was important in the book. This change would lead to more student ownership of the task, and require students to create their own understanding of one important idea at work in the text.

Reference: Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects Matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Unexpected Texts: incorporating diverse media and formats into unit design

4.1 Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy: Teacher’s plans and practice reflect familiarity with a wide range of effective pedagogical approaches in the discipline. In the English Language Arts classroom, effective pedagogy depends on aligning teaching practices with anchor texts. It also depends on creating assignments that require deep thinking about those texts while developing concrete writing skills. 21st-century students must become proficient readers and interpreters of many different kinds of texts, electronic, visual, and auditory as well as written.  As described in one anchor standard for reading, students shall be able to “integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016). Likewise, 21st-century educators must develop effective ways of teaching diverse texts.

Units planned around multiple formats require clear thematic connections, to build conceptual categories that allow students to interpret and analyze divergent texts related in abstract or theoretical ways. Those thematic connections should  link to students’ daily lives, express big ideas at the heart of the discipline, and address real world problems and solutions. The following hand-out describes a unit I designed around the topic of cross-cultural communication, with a focus on the importance of attentive listening. Texts for this unit included Ted Talks, short films, documentaries, a popular family movie, radio broadcasts, a school assembly on environmental justice, and several short stories.

ss unit overview

Because the conceptual connections in this unit were abstract and theoretical, I took care to express unit goals in direct, student-friendly language: identify elements of effective listening; analyze how aspects of culture affect communication; and practice creating theme statements for a wide variety of texts.  I teach in an exceptionally diverse, urban high school; my students experience the need for cross-cultural communication daily, in the hallways, cafeteria and gymnasium as well as the classroom. Unit texts also addressed contemporary, real-world problems, from Jay Smooth’s Ted Talk, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race, to Oil & Water, a documentary that explores the impact of the petroleum industry on the Ecuadoran Amazon and on the Cofan people, who depend on the river and surrounding rain forest for their cultural and economic existence. Since many unit texts reside outside the literary canon, I explicitly tied unit goals to state standards, lending the unit “credentials” as well as authentic purpose.

Another way in which I supported student literacy with divergent textual formats was by providing tailored note-taking tools. I designed a “master note sheet,” then tweaked it for each individual visual or auditory text. I checked notes weekly, and awarded “accountability points” for detailed notes and thoughtful, authentic theme statements. This allowed me to track student progress with the unit goals and to adjust my teaching practice and support accordingly. As Marzano (2007) states, “This is at the heart of formative assessment–examining the gradual increase in knowledge for specific learning goals throughout a unit” (p. 25). I have included a screen shot of one note-taking sheet, and detail from one student’s use of it, below.

ss wade davis notes


Student work example: use of note-taking tool

By tweaking the note-taking tool to align with individual texts, I helped students practice their own “art of listening,” and pay attention to textual details that inform an accurate theme statement or interpretation. Dreams from Endangered Cultures is a powerful lecture about the disappearance of indigenous languages around the world. Wade Davis shares his message about “what is lost when a language is lost” with beautiful, thought-provoking photographs as well as words. I wanted my students to pay attention to the visual as well as auditory information in the lecture, particularly given Davis’ high-level, anthropology-specific vocabulary that might “lose or confuse” some of the class. By including a note-taking category for “images” and instructing students to capture specific details from and reactions to the photographs, I stretched students’ understanding of how different textual formats create meaning, and expanded their cache of interpretive tools.

The student whose work is shown above has already begun to wonder about the way in which those photographs relate to his own perception of reality. When I was checking notes, this student’s written theme statement was imprecise, so I asked him to refine it orally. I recorded what he said in my teacher notebook, since I loved how he honored his experience with the images as well as the words: “Having an image describe what we…know about a particular place makes me wonder about how words change what we know about the world.” By breaking the note-taking sheet into two categories, one for images and one for words, I allowed this student to notice the importance of those two aspects of the text. He then synthesized the two details into an accurate and insightful theme statement about how words shape our understanding of the natural world.

Another way in which I creatively supported student learning in this unit was through diverse assessment practices. I “chunked” the assessments, both in terms of their alignment with the unit goals and in terms of their increasing difficulty. As Rosenshine (2012) elucidates, “Education…occurs when knowledge is well rehearsed and ties to other knowledge” (p. 12). In this unit, students incrementally developed their understanding of cross-cultural communication (and its relationship to careful listening) as well as their facility at  creating theme statements. Structured note-taking sheets provided a foundation for the first formal assessment, a written opinion piece. This assignment asked students to “identify and define the most important element of effective listening, based on the texts we have covered so far.” I provided a list of potential “elements of effective listening,” brainstormed by the entire class and linked to specific texts, on the back of the assignment sheet. Here are the first two paragraphs of one student’s opinion piece.


Student work example of first formal assessment for unit (opinion piece)

You can see from the essay’s engaging opening that multiple encounters with diverse texts around a common theme have paid off in sophisticated understanding. The student complexly defines what it means to truly listen to another person, and considers the importance of considering cultural background and personal experience when interpreting someone’s words, or needs. The second paragraph reveals a solid grasp, not only of Jay Smooth’s main idea, but of the language of the text. She cites and then “re-applies” a central metaphor from the Ted Talk (see teacher feedback in margin), demonstrating careful listening and note taking. When I graded the opinion pieces I saw similar evidence of students benefiting from the note-taking tools, both in their references to concrete examples from visual and auditory texts, and in their ability to synthesize an evaluative claim about listening from that evidence.

When I first began planning for this unit, I knew I wanted to include the movie Chicken Run. Over the course of this film, the main character, Ginger, learns the “language of leadership.” She figures out how to translate her goals and ideals into inspirational words that reach across the diverse values and experiences of her comrades. She also comes to recognize the importance of listening, both to what others need, and to disappointing truths. I knew that many of my students would have watched Chicken Run when they were in elementary school, and wanted them to critically re-think a childhood text. But I also knew they would need support to take the film seriously, and to view it as an example of cross-cultural communication. So for the second assessment of the unit, I assigned a group project: Grade A Chicken (bad pun, alas, intended):

ss grade a chicken

This project built on the work students had done individually in their opinion pieces by requiring them to extend and apply their understanding of effective listening and how it enables cross-cultural communication. Group work requires strong communication skills, so the assessment aligned with process as well as content. As Pressley and McCormick (2007) explain, “by students thinking together–dialoguing about challenging academic tasks–students learn how to think, eventually internalizing as their own the approaches to thinking tried in the group” (p. 277). I have included a student work sample showing one group’s rubric below.


Student work example of second formal assessment for unit (Grade A Chicken group project)

The four students who designed this rubric have taken elements of listening that they wrote about or referred to in their opinion pieces and refined them as elements essential to cross-cultural discourse. They have described important aspects of communication in concrete, observable, measurable terms, and divided them into separate levels of attainment. Their completed rubric demonstrates mastery of the concepts and an ability to apply them to a “real world” writing task. Student paragraphs justifying their rubric categories and the grade they assigned to Ginger’s communication skills were equally impressive. One thing I would change about this particular assessment would be to assign it summative rather than formative points. Because I was unsure whether students would struggle with the rubric genre, I did not want to overweight the assessment. In fact, student work demonstrated insightful comprehension of the requirements of effective rubrics as well as of the requirements of effective communication.

Over the course of this unit, students practiced creating theme statements for 10 unique texts in multiple media and formats. The final unit assessment asked them to apply that practice to a more traditional English Language Arts task: identifying themes in and making an interpretive statement about a short story, then supporting that interpretation with textual evidence. I had originally chosen two 19th-century short stories for the unit, but because the other texts dealt with contemporary issues, I decided to replace those two with five modern short stories from diverse cultural perspectives. Students read and annotated these stories with the support of two note-taking tools. One tool offered students the opportunity to visually encapsulate their responses to the story in six quick “sketch boxes;” the other had students describe the story’s setting and main character/s before summarizing the plot. Both note-taking sheets required students to create a theme statement for the short story after reflecting on their sketches or on the story elements they identified.

Providing two note-taking options allowed students to choose a reading strategy that fit their individual reading needs and strengths. Developing lasting literacy requires students to make good choices about what they read as well as how they read, so students chose three of the five short stories to read, and one to write about. This instructional choice on my part aligned with the idea that, “real readers, lifelong readers, assign themselves…In every subject area, some reading materials should be chosen by the young people themselves, reflecting their own view of the topic, their own connections and interests” (Daniels & Zemelman, 2014). My essay instructions follow:

ss theme statement essay

 Because I had read student’s notes and theme statements at frequent intervals throughout the unit, I knew that my students had made excellent progress, and were able to express main ideas in their own words, identify themes (“big and recurring ideas”), and create theme statements (“what the text says about those ideas, often expressed as a lesson or moral”). I knew that their theme statements were increasingly appropriately focused (“neither too broad nor too narrow”) and accurate to the text (“reflecting the language of the text and referencing one or more themes”). The preceding parenthetical definitions reflect the instructional work we did as a whole class, to capture what we were learning about themes and theme statements in precise definitions. And the following work sample reflects the high level of literary interpretation and textual support my students achieved:

Student work example of third formal assessment for unit (in-class theme statement essay)

Student work example of third formal assessment for unit (in-class theme statement essay)

This student has clearly identified two important themes in the text (“community and identity”), then created a theme statement that expresses what we learn about those themes in her own words. While her theme statement might appear initially unrelated to the themes she has identified, as the essay progresses, she draws complex connections between religious identity, insiders and outsiders, and the way in which for both characters that religious difference initially fascinates and attracts then, once they have connected, ironically dissolves their relationship. This essay demonstrates high-level interpretive reading. It also reveals the benefit of practice: identifying themes, writing theme statements, and grounding them in diverse textual evidence.

The  interpretive thinking and sophisticated writing demonstrated in these essays was indeed gratifying. But when I teach this unit again I may delete that final assessment. The note-taking tools enabled me to track student progress and adjust my instruction and text selections accordingly. Because students wrote a theme statement for each text as the “final step” in reflecting on their notes, I already knew how much their ability to do so had grown. My students lead busy and remarkably stressful lives. Rather than spending a class period re-demonstrating their expertise with theme statements, I would give them a class period to peer edit and refine their earlier opinion pieces.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R7). Retrieved from corestandards.org on May 28, 2016

Daniels, H. and Zemelman, S. (2014). Subjects Matter: Exceeding standards through powerful content-area reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann

Marzano, Robert. (2007). The Art and Science of Teaching. Alexandria, Virginia: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Pressley and McCormick (2007). Child and Adolescent Development for Educators. New York:  The Guilford Press

Rosenshine, Barak. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, V36N1, pp. 12-19, 39

The Art of Questioning

2.1 Using Questioning and Discussion Techniques: Most of the teacher’s questions are of high quality. Adequate time is provided for students to respond. Creating high-quality questions requires attention to several instructional practices. Proficient inquiry-based teachers integrate adequate time for questioning into lesson plans. They design open-ended questions that require complex analysis, address multiple cognitive skills, and invite answers grounded in evidence. They allow enough wait time to create high-quality responses, and support deep thinking by instructing students to “think inside your head,” pair share, or write before whole class discussion. And they foster engagement with the course material by focusing on essential questions that “represent a big idea with value beyond the classroom, reside at the heart of the discipline, and require uncoverage” (Wiggins & McTighe, p. 21).

The following evidence derives from a lesson I designed around this objective:  Evaluate how gender affects the theme of defiance in Purple Hibiscus by analyzing multiple characters’ responses to authority in dangerous or oppressive situations. This is the 16th lesson for a unit centered on the contemporary novel Purple Hibiscus. The unit focused on how context impacts reading and interpretation. Over the course of the unit we studied multiple ways of understanding context, including the contextual nature of word meanings, the context provided by literary lenses such as feminism or postcolonialism, religious contexts, and the context of Nigerian political history. Yet a set of essential questions guided all of those contextual approaches:

ss essential questions

The above image is taken from the reading guide that students received on the first day of the unit. Because I wanted rich questions to inform our interpretive reading, I listed the essential questions first. Those questions carried us through the unit, weaving together classwork, poems, theoretical texts, writing assignments and journal work. The questions represent big ideas with enduring value, such as how to practice both empathy and appropriate defiance, yet reside at the heart of literature studies because they are  central to Adichie’s character development and to the novel’s representation of postcolonial Nigeria, embedded use of Igbo language, and responses to Nigerian Catholicism.

The objective for this lesson addresses the second essential question through the lens of gender. After writing in their journals in response to a poem, students were asked to consider the question, “What does this poem tell us about standing up for one’s self?” Please click on the link below to hear an audio clip of my presentation of the question, and of the class’s response.

Audio Clip Question + Pair Share

Since students had already reflected on the poem in writing, they were prepared to discuss the opening question with enthusiasm and depth. Because I wanted every student engaged  and thinking about the questions that would guide us through the day’s lesson, I chose to open with pair share rather than asking for raised hands and calling on a few students. As Goldsmith (2013) reminds us: “Only using the raise-your-hand method creates a two tier system in a classroom–those who know and those who don’t know, widening the achievement gap (p. 50). You can hear from the abundance of voices that every student had a chance to talk, and every student had something to share.

After pair share, I introduced the learning target, and asked students to interact with it by “thinking inside their heads” about two questions, which I projected on the screen:

ss questions- connection between gender & defiance

After allotting 30 seconds of “think inside your head” time, I used “calling cards” to collect initial responses to one of the questions from randomly chosen students. By providing a defined wait time, I allowed students to develop their thoughts, both deepening responses and making sure all students were prepared to answer. By giving a choice of questions, I provided built-in scaffolding. The first question can be answered “yes” or “no,” then followed with an additional teacher question, “Why do you think that is?” The second question involves a more complex initial answer, and moves students toward the interpretive task for the day: analyzing how gender impacts the way characters practice defiance in Purple Hibiscus.

Another way to practice inquiry-based teaching is to involve students in the creation of questions. The bulk of this lesson would be spent on Socratic seminar, a form of discussion that can create complex analysis and strong use of evidence, but that also requires a great deal of listening and silent engagement while individual students share their interpretations of the text and build on each others’ ideas. Since careful inquiry is part of analysis, and knowing which questions to ask an important aspect of interpretation, I chose to have students create discussion questions for the seminar. I instructed students to:

ss socratic seminar questions

As they entered the classroom I had greeted students with an index card with a red letter written on it. These index cards randomized pairs for the question creation activity, assuring that students interacted with multiple peers over the course of the lesson, and benefited from different ways of asking questions. Students spent about five minutes creating their questions, while I circulated and observed their levels of inquiry, and ability to incorporate a focus on either feminism or defiance into the question. I was impressed with the quality of the questions, and interested to see how differently students applied the literary lens of feminism.

But between finding randomly assigned partners, creating questions, then moving into a circle with books and reading journals for Socratic seminar, the question-creating exercise took longer than I had planned, about 12 minutes total. I felt that the pay-off was not worth the time spent on the activity. During the Socratic seminar itself, I also noticed that because students had spent time and energy creating their questions, they tended to move prematurely to a new question rather than allowing adequate wait time for deep thinking or follow-up responses to emerge. In my classroom, students lead Socratic seminar. I intervene  only to ask that they spread the conversation more broadly by “waiting for at least two new people to speak before responding if you have already spoken,” or to remind them to ground responses in textual evidence.

One change I would make in this lesson would be to direct students at the start of Socratic Seminar to “wait for at least ten seconds of silence before moving on to a new question.” But because the question creation activity took more class time than expected, I decided to skip it when I taught the lesson the second time. Instead, I began Socratic seminar by having students contribute to a group summary  of “who has practiced defiance in Purple Hibiscus so far.” I then posed the opening question, “Do you think that gender impacted those characters’ defiance, and if so, how?” Students led the rest of the seminar, and though only one or two new questions were introduced, the discussion demonstrated insightful reading, complex analysis, and frequent references to specific examples from the text.

Because this lesson was heavily inquiry based, I wanted the students to leave with a sense of closure, knowing that they had come to some answers as well as struggled with important questions. So my final query asked them to identify one new connection between gender and how characters defy authority in the text. I posted instructions for a brief reflection on the screen:

Student Voice reflection question for journal

This final question brought the round of inquiry full circle, asking students to identify one distinct way in which gender impacts defiance in the novel. Though the activity took only a minute, because students responded to the question in writing, every student ended the class fully engaged with a response that inherently involved both evaluation (did I make a clear connection?) and application (how does that essential question about defiance apply to a character in this story?).


Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. (2012). Purple Hibiscus. Chapel Hill: Alonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Goldsmith, W. (2013). “Enhancing Classroom Conversation for All Students.” Kappan, April 2013, pp. 48-52

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision of Curriculum Development

Cultural Language in the Classroom: Inclusion as a tool for academic language instruction

1.1 Demonstrating Knowledge of Content and Pedagogy: Teacher recognizes the value of understanding students’ interests and cultural heritage and displays this knowledge for groups of students. Valuing students’ diverse cultural heritages requires valuing students’ diverse language backgrounds. Effective teaching of academic language, in particular, necessitates understanding language backgrounds in a broad sense; it requires familiarity with and respect for diverse conversational or cultural languages. The following selection is from a discussion board post I wrote for Edu 6136, Content Methods, prompted by the question, How do students use academic language to develop their understanding of subject matter?

bportfolio evidence

In my response, I analyze academic language from two points of view: as an aid to building effective language skill, which is the subject matter of English Language Arts, and as an aid to incorporating diverse cultural languages as an asset in the classroom.

One way to include diverse cultural languages in the classroom is by accessing student’s personal definitions of content specific vocabulary. I will use the term “active listening” as an example. For many students, familiar active listening strategies include direct eye contact with the speaker, paraphrasing the speaker’s words, or asking clarifying questions. For a deaf student in a hearing class, however, active listening might require focusing on both speaker and interpreter, so as to observe the facial and body inflections of each. A student whose cultural background considers direct disagreement disrespectful might define active listening as more deferential, requiring gentle affirmation of understanding rather than questions. A culturally sensitive teacher can include these multiple understandings of active listening by asking students to draw or describe what it looks, feels, or sounds like when someone truly understands what they are trying to say. By building on students’ own experiences, the teacher will also create more wholistic understanding of what active listening means in academic language: those techniques that insure students are prepared to “participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (Common Cores State Standards Initiative, 2016).

One way in which I plan on incorporating my understanding of the connection between cultural and academic language in the classroom is by teaching a unit on The Art of Conversation. I am designing the unit now, with a focus on effective techniques for cross-cultural listening and speaking. The unit will incorporate texts from multiple genres, including a written article on communication in the age of the internet, radio broadcasts, Ted Talks, movies, and the students’ own conversations. The texts also represent multiple cultural languages, including academic prose, percussion music, American Sign Language, gossip in a South African village, and the language of leadership. Perhaps most importantly, students will reflect both on what each text claims is necessary for effective communication, and on how their own experiences as readers, viewers, and listeners shapes that understanding.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening 1 (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1). Retrieved from Corestandards.org, March 16, 2016.

O’Neal, D. and Ringler, M. (2010). Broadening Our View of Linguistic Diversity. Kappan, V91N7, pp. 48-52


Volunteer tutors can scaffold student learning: a few tips for integrating tutors in your classroom

“Scaffolding is…a fluid, interpersonal process in which both participants are active participants [and] actively build common understanding.” [1]

Effective scaffolding requires one-on-one interactions, yet few classroom teachers can devote adequate time to individualized assessment and support. Volunteers can provide the help some students need to succeed. To maximize the benefits of volunteer tutors:

Volunteers should commit to a regular schedule.

Tutoring, like teaching, is relational work; relationships require time and trust. A tutor who comes once a week over the course of a semester or year will see their students’ progress and reap the benefits of their own gift of time. Allow tutors a few trial visits before requiring a long-term commitment.

Communicate regularly.

Set aside 15 minutes for monthly tutor check-ins, either by phone or in person. Do you need to intervene with a discipline issue or provide some strategy instruction? Update tutors on upcoming schedule changes and have at least two communication modes (email, phone, text) for last-minute notifications.

Make sure tutors have access to class materials.

Provide texts, worksheets, assignments and rubrics. This allows tutors to prepare ahead of time and align scaffolding with clear goals and expectations.

Create a small community of support among tutors.

Tutors will benefit from each other’s experience and knowledge as well as the camaraderie. Provide a beginning of the year training session. Invite tutors to eat lunch in your classroom. Create a group email just for tutors.

Honor your volunteers with meaningful appreciation.

Validate the results of tutoring by reporting student progress and success. Many volunteers see their own learning as a tangible benefit, so include tutors in workshops or professional development opportunities as appropriate. There is no substitute for a hand-written thank you note, particularly one from a student.

[1] De Pol, J., Volman, M. and Beishussen, J. (2010). Scaffolding in Teacher-Student Interaction: A Decade of Research. Educational Psychology Review, 22, p. 272. doi:10.1007/s10648-010-9127-6