“Mark [their] words”: formative and summative assessment tools for student discussion skills

6. Assessment The teacher uses multiple data elements (both formative and summative) to plan, inform and adjust instruction and evaluate student learning. As English Language Arts (ELA) teachers we must create accurate, transparent, growth-oriented assessment tools around multiple literacy skills, including speaking and listening. Speaking and listening form an important component of state literacy standards, as in the following anchor standard: “[Students can] prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively” (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016). In addition, discussion provides the basis for many learning activities in ELA classrooms, and plays an important role in helping students clarify and express their own ideas about a text or topic, as well as build on, respond to, and synthesize the ideas of others. Finally, I believe that explicitly assessing discussions helps honor diverse linguistic and literacy skills, particularly for students whose verbal expression is stronger than their command of written academic language.

The following narrative describes a two-day assessment process of small group discussion skills in a 9th grade (General Education) Language Arts classroom. The focus for the unit was on building literary discussion skills, so the final (graded) discussion provided a summative assessment of those skills. I used the Common Core Anchor Standard cited above as a basis for both formative and summative assessment criteria.

Students discussed Toni Morrison’s novel, The Bluest Eye; they had finished the book by the final (graded) discussion. A series of short discussions, led by students but with input and guidance provided by me, preceded the final set of assessed discussions. Students set the group norms and reading schedule and created open-ended, higher-level (from Bloom’s taxonomy) questions to guide ongoing discussions. For the assessments, I informed the students that I would be observing rather than participating in discussion, and that I would be taking notes on their questions, use of textual evidence, responses, and ability to build on each others’ ideas. As a group, we also discussed the physical signs of good academic discussion: eye contact; respectful listening; and books/notebooks open, looking for evidence. The discussion group contained 7 students; these students had chosen to read and discuss (self-selected) The Bluest Eye. Students represented widely diverse social, economic, ethnic, and academic backgrounds. Both discussions lasted approximately 20 minutes.

I tracked the formative assessment data using two sheets of paper, divided into four columns each. As students discussed I wrote quick notes summarizing students’ verbal contributions to the discussion as well as physical attentiveness to the group. I also tallied verbal contributions by type, using the following symbols: ?=asked a question; T=referred to text; Q=quoted text; R=responded to a question;B=built on other students’ idea. The following evidence is from that initial tracking sheet:

Notes from formatively assessed discussion

Notes from formatively assessed discussion

You can see that my notes include observations of the student’s critical reading skills, such as “Personal/real world connection” or “confusion over narrator.” I have also recorded how fully present students were with the discussion, such as “Used restroom for most of discussion…[but] joined in on conversation [when returned].” At the conclusion of the discussion, while students were packing up, I recorded a quick assessment of each student’s overall contributions, in the form of a “want” (next steps to improve discussion skill) and a “wow” (specific strength demonstrated during discussion). The middle student above, for example, needed to move from summary (“figuring out what’s going on”) to interpretation (“figuring out what that means or implies”) but also demonstrated strong responsiveness to others’ ideas.

Clearly there are several limitations around this kind of close assessment of discussion skill. One of those is group size; I was keeping track of 7 students and could have added, at the most, one more and still recorded accurate tallies and direct evidence of reading and discussion skill. The other is that it requires knowledgeable, trained assessors. While volunteer discussion leaders could track individual participation using the tally marks, recording notes about levels of interpretive reading or personal engagement with the text requires knowledge of the text, the students, academic language expectations, and literacy instruction.

After class, I “translated” those notes and tallies into a formative assessment slip, an example of which is shown below:

Formative feedback slip, student 2

Formative feedback slip

You can see that I have directly transposed the tally marks to the assessment slip, and that a key to those tally marks is listed at the bottom of the slip. The slip provides assessment evidence that is both measurable and transparent. The slip also provides growth-oriented comments, in the form of a “want” (next step for specific improvement) and a “wow” (a specific skill strength demonstrated during discussion.) I passed these slips out to students the next day, in preparation for our final, graded discussion, and had students write a personal discussion skill goal on the back of the slip based on my feedback. The example below is from the back of the same slip shown above:

Student 2: self-evaluation and goal for next (graded) discussion

Student’s self-evaluation and goal for next (graded) discussion on back of formative feedback slip

I suggested that this student, “Work on moving from ‘figuring out what’s going on’ to interpreting text using that quote & textual evidence’.” I then translated that suggestion into student-friendly language: “Think about ‘how’ or ‘why’ that’s happening in the book.” The student set a personal goal of “talk less but better,” which demonstrated responsiveness both to my feedback, and to the number of tally marks, which showed frequent building on others’ ideas (a real strength in this student’s discussion skill, and noted in my “wow”) but not deep follow through on text references or quotations. At the end of the second, graded discussion I asked students to reflect briefly on whether they had met their goal, and this student responded that she had, because she had “2 instead of 10.” In fact, this student was accurate in her self-assessment. During the final discussion, she built twice on another student’s ideas, then made two original responses to the text, followed by a direct quotation and a response that considered the meaning of that quotation (see summative feedback slips at end of this post, second student’s gradesheet). Her self-assessment demonstrated both accurate evaluation and a sense of accomplishment at having met her learning goal.

After students had set personal goals for the second, graded (summatively assessed) discussion, I showed them the grading slip I would be using to track their discussion skills, and drew their attention to the back of the slip, which outlined the bases for grading, shown below:

Explanation of Summative Grading Expectations

Explanation of Summative Grading Expectations

As you can see, I have made my assessment criteria transparent and specific, by listing both the type of contributions I will be looking for, using those symbols from the formative assessment (?,T,Q,R,B) and the physical signs of engaged discussion we discussed previously. I also added an explanation of how I would evaluate the quality of their contributions, both quantitatively (specific requirements for proficiency, at top) and qualitatively (“If your question, use of text, response…demonstrates complex thinking, skilled interpretation, or expands on idea…you will receive a ‘+’ next to that tally mark.”) At the bottom of the explanation of grading I have aligned the categories of skill with letter grades.

After students set personal goals (participated in evaluation criteria formation) and I explained my own grading criteria, I reminded the students that I would be observing and evaluating their discussion skill rather than participating in the discussion, and asked them to begin with one of their “best” high-level questions. While students discussed, I took notes on my grading sheet, shown below:

Summative feedback slips

Summative feedback slips/grading sheet

As you can see, this grading sheet is designed to be cut into individual feedback slips, but by having those individual slips attached during the actual evaluative process I was able to keep accurate notes on individual students. I lined the grading sheets up in front of me, and wrote students’ names in the order that they were sitting, to make it easier to keep accurate track of tallies. Because this was a summative assessment, I concentrated on quantitative data (tally marks) and evaluating the quality of those contributions (+ marks) rather than capturing students’ exact words. I closely aligned formative and summative assessments: visually (grading slip format, common tally marks); chronologically (summative assessment occurred day after formative assessment, students received formative feedback and set personal goal immediately before graded discussion); and conceptually (common bases for evaluation, common physical signs of engaged discussion).

While students were packing up, I recorded a “wonder”: a question that grew out of the understanding of the book that the student demonstrated during the discussion. The middle student above, for example, had shown great insight around why one of the most abusive characters in the book was unable to “love his daughter in the right way” (because he had not learned to love himself.) In response, I asked this student, “Has anyone in this story truly learned how to love themselves so they can love someone else?” I am particularly proud of the “wonder” questions I posed to individual students for two reasons. First, because they honor student’s deep thinking and insightful reading. Second, because they are growth-oriented in the most important sense: they ask students to re-engage with their own thinking, and to consider the implications of their own ideas.

After class, I was able to add up the tally marks and numbers of + signs, assign grades based on that data, and add a final “wow,” a note of appreciation for a specific strength each student had demonstrated over the course of the discussion. The grading slips made this process both accurate and timely; I was able to return grading slips and have grades entered electronically on the day following the discussion.

In the future, one thing I would change about this grading process would be to return grading slips in person, with a voiced appreciation for how much I enjoyed hearing that student’s ideas about the book. Because we were wrapping up a unit and I was short on time, I simply placed the grading slips in student’s hanging file folders and informed the class they were available. While written feedback is important, I believe that the form of the assessment should be closely aligned with the skill assessed. Since this was an assessment of listening and speaking, I wish I had explicitly added that component to my evaluation and honored students with verbal as well as written praise.


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, January 23, 2016


Collaborating Outside the Classroom: sharing stories to build strategies

8. Professional Practice – The teacher participates collaboratively in the educational community to improve instruction, advance the knowledge and practice of teaching as a profession, and ultimately impact student learning. For me, professional collaboration depends on sharing our classroom stories. This is how we learn from others’ teaching experience and how we reflect on our own. It is how we trade curriculum, analyze assessment, and discover practical solutions to everyday teaching problems. Sometimes we want to share those classroom stories with teachers whose experience closely matches our own: teachers working at our same school, in the same grade level and content area. At the school in which I intern, for example, the 9th and 10th grade Language Arts teachers collaborated to create two common rubrics for summative writing assessments. Here is an image of the 10th grade rubric, which I modified for use with an in-class essay:

Common Rubric example

According to DuFour (2011), “The most comprehensive study of factors affecting schooling…concluded that the most powerful strategy for helping students learn at higher levels was ensuring that teachers work collaboratively in teams to establish the essential learnings all students must acquire [and] to gather evidence of student learning through an ongoing assessment process” (p. 60). This common rubric reflects an established understanding of the essential writing skills students must acquire by the end of 10th grade. In addition, the common rubric creates consistent language around writing instruction that allows students to know what is expected and to build writing skills piece by piece. Because the rubric can be highlighted to focus on different elements of writing, it is adaptable to writing assignments that focus on distinct elements of academic writing, or on specific writing conditions. In the rubric above, for example, I shaded out the Context, Conclusion, Grammar and Professionalism categories. Since I was using the rubric for an in-class essay I wanted my students to be able to focus on the essential ingredients for on-demand writing: Thesis, Organization, Concrete Details and Analysis, without worrying about detailed final editing tasks.  When I graded my students’ in-class essays using this rubric I was impressed by the consistent focus and sophisticated use and analysis of textual evidence I observed in their essays. In the future, I would like to review the rubric with the 10th grade Language Arts team and jointly prioritize rubric categories for in-class essays. On-demand writing is required for many standardized tests, college courses, and careers, and collaborating with other teachers to define essential writing elements specifically for on-demand tasks will serve students well in their writing futures.

Sometimes we need to go outside of our school building to expand our understanding of what constitutes essential learning and how to teach and evaluate it. Professional organizations help us to trade classroom stories with a broader audience. In EDU 6134, a Professional Issues class, I researched three professional organizations that focus on English Language Arts and Literacy instruction. The chart below summarizes what I learned about the professional learning opportunities offered by those organizations.


Webquest 2

Webquest 3

Webquest 4

Webquest 5

These professional organizations all offer opportunities for sharing curriculum, assessments, and instruction. But effective idea sharing, support and collaborative problem solving requires in-person meeting time. According to Desimone (2011), “a more broad-based view of teacher professional development has emerged, treating teacher learning as interactive and social, based in discourse and community practice” (p. 68). The Washington Organization for Reading Development (WORD) is divided into local councils, including a Seattle council and a particularly active Lake Washington council. These latter two meet regularly over the course of the school year and offer opportunities for book talks, author visits, and sharing of strategies around literacy instruction and reading engagement. These offerings form the basis for effective interactive, social, practice-based teacher learning. At these local events I also hope to connect with other educators interested in literacy development at the high school level. By sharing stories about challenges we’ve faced, strategies we’ve used, and books we’ve taught we can all better help our struggling students develop into strong readers and writers.


Desimone, L. (2011). A Primer on effective professional development. Kappan, V92, N6

DuFour, R. (2011). Work together but only if you want to. Kappan, V92,N5


Organized Classroom, Organized Students: procedures that facilitate learning

5.3 Managing Classroom Procedures through Performance of Noninstructional Duties: Efficient systems for performing noninstructional duties are in place, resulting in minimal loss of instructional time. Effective classroom procedures allow teachers to focus on instruction and students to focus on learning by clearly defining how administrative tasks are taken care of and who is responsible for them. Wong (2009) states, “The effective teacher is able to organize a well-managed classroom where students can learn in a task-oriented environment” (p. 80).  When teachers create clearly defined systems for gathering materials, collating work papers,  and beginning class, students are able to take responsibility for and proceed independently with their own learning work.

At the school in which I intern there is a teacher who is a master of classroom organization.  I observed this teacher’s 9th Grade Honors Language Arts class; she also teachers 12th Grade AP Language Arts. When students enter this teacher’s classroom they pass by a table that has everything they need to prepare for that day’s activities.  Here is a photo of that table:


Tools that enable students to organize for learning

Before class begins, students check the master notebook (labeled “Daily Plans”) to see which handouts they need and what assignments are due. Materials are contained in the file folders (marked by grade level) to the left, and a three-hole punch, stapler, tape and writing instruments are readily available. There are two baskets (one per grade level) for turning in assignments. Students take the materials they need and organize their individual notebooks in accordance with the teacher’s model. As materials and tools are nearby and visible, students do not waste time searching for paperwork or office supplies. Since students are responsible for retrieving and organizing class paperwork, the teacher is able to devote class time to high quality instruction rather than administrative details. A Godzilla action figure and jar of band-aids reminds students that the teacher is caring and has a sense of humor, in addition to having high expectations for student self-responsibility.

Because this teacher has clear procedures for entering the room and preparing materials, class began on time, with every student on task.  While students wrote possible applications and meanings of the Latin roots figo or fixum in their logbooks the teacher took role and briefly previewed the schedule for the upcoming week. These administrative tasks did not interrupt the students’ vocabulary-building work, and they were prepared to share strong examples of words formed using those roots that demonstrated diverse and nuanced meanings of “to fix, fasten, or attach.” After creating a class list of these words, which students could then record in their logbooks, the teacher remarked, “Oh, that’s Root 24. At Root 25 we do some review and then we have a test. Here’s what that looks like…” The teacher only needed to spend about one minute describing the test; her clear routines for logbook organization, starting class, and recording daily root words and vocabulary work meant students were well-prepared for the upcoming assessment.

Throughout the class I increased my understanding of how physical organizational systems can maximize student learning during a lesson.  During a discussion about literary techniques, for example, the teacher said, “On page 203 there is an allusion. How many of you are familiar with that word? If you are not familiar with it, it is conveniently located on page number one of your vocabulary section.” By helping students set up a well-organized logbook and having routines for learning and recording vocabulary, the teacher enabled students to quickly define a word necessary for understanding the text, and provided natural pay off for following her procedures. While watching and listening to a podcast on satire, the teacher stopped at pertinent points to have students write down a definition of satirical techniques, such as exaggeration. Since they keep well-organized logbooks, students will be able to refer back to those definitions in future discussions of satirical techniques, consolidating their learning through repetition and reapplication of terms.

One particular aspect of physical organization in the classroom that I would like to learn more about is effectively handling student paperwork, particularly when collecting and returning assignments.  I usually collect in-class writing work as students leave, thanking them as they hand it to me. Often I return graded papers at the end of class, while students are packing up. I like the personal contact with students over their important writing work, but I think it would be more efficient and less chaotic to set up routines that make students fully responsible for getting their assignments to the “turn in” basket and for collecting their graded work when it is ready.  This might also allow me to briefly address common writing issues and praise observed writing progress, rather than spending the last few minutes of class distributing graded work.

Reference: Wong, H. & Wong, R. (2009) The First Days of School:  How to Be an Effective Teacher Mountain View, CA:  Harry K. Song Publications, Inc.

Phone Calls Home: the power of positive

7.1 Communicating with Families:  Teacher communicates with families about students’ progress on a regular basis, respecting cultural norms, and is available as needed to respond to family concerns.
For me, communicating with families begins with inviting and culturally respectful contact but doesn’t end there.  Communicating with families also means following through on concerns and questions that arise out of that initial contact. One technique for fostering excellent communication with families is the positive phone call home at the beginning of the year.  This positive phone call lets families know that you are available and approachable, gives clear information about how to contact you, and invites open communication about concerns and questions.  In addition, by establishing a precedence of “good news,” you make future phone calls home easier and more productive, even if they may arise in response to problems in the classroom.

This year, due to labor negotiations and a delayed first day of school, establishing positive communication with our students’ families was particularly important.  Seattle Public Schools began on the same day that the school in which I intern had originally scheduled its Curriculum Night Open House.  When Curriculum Night was rescheduled, I used sharing that information as an opportunity to make positive phone contact with all of the families of our 10th grade Honors Language Arts students.  I introduced myself, explained that my mentor teacher and I would be following a co-teaching model, with changing roles throughout the year, shared two methods for contacting me, and informed parents of the rescheduled Curriculum Night date and time.  I also asked whether parents had any questions about my role in the classroom.  Here is an image of the script I used for those phone calls, recorded in my teaching logbook:


Script for initial phone calls home

We have 65 students in two periods and I either spoke with or left a voice message for 57 parents or guardians total; the other eight had unlisted or inactive phone service. I kept track of the phone calls on each students’ information card, simply noting the date and an “M” if I left a message rather than had direct contact.  This practice serves as a record of my contact with families.  At the bottom of the Script for initial phone calls home image you can see the most important notes I take during such phone calls:  specific information shared by parents or guardians that will help me in serving my students.

In order to remember and respond to this information, I also record it in a different section of my teaching logbook, organized by period, which I review weekly and to which I add notes on observations and informal assessments of individual student progress in targeted areas.  This allows me to address the second and, for me, most important aspect of communicating with student families:  following through on concerns and questions.

During my start-of-year phone calls, for example, one parent expressed concern over her daughter’s writing skills, particularly over writing anxiety and difficulty beginning and sustaining the writing process.  That parent and I discussed several specific techniques for initiating writing and for helping students to find a writing process that works for them.  Three weeks later I made phone calls home to all of the parents who had shared specific concerns.  When I spoke with the parent of this student, I referred to our initial phone call, and explained that we were doing several on-demand writing assignments for our current unit and why.  Here is an image of my notes regarding that follow-up phone call:


Notes on follow-up phone call

In this example, you can see that I referred to the purpose of those writing tasks and to specific observations made about the student’s ability to handle the first task.  I noted that the student appeared confident while writing, was immediately on-task, turned her writing in before the end of the period, and wrote a full page responding to the prompt.  I intentionally made this phone call before grading the assignment because I wanted the focus of our communication to be on the students’ writing confidence and habits, rather than an evaluation of the finished product.  You can also see, at the end of my phone call notes, that the parent and I discussed a way to foster a “next step” in writing fluidity:  out loud editing.  I am pleased to report that the student is receiving help at home in editing her writing out loud, and that when I read her in-class paragraph I noted several edits to her text that corrected awkward or grammatically incorrect sentences.  This information indicates that my communication and follow-through with families resulted in the student’s progress as a writer and editor.

One thing I would like to improve about my parent communication at the beginning of the year is finding a way to continue positive outreach to every family throughout the year.  While it is both manageable and worthwhile to continue phone communication with a few families who have requested targeted observation and support, individual phone calls to 60 parents takes about three hours; for all 140 students it would take over five hours.  When I have my own classroom, I plan on asking parents if they would like to receive regular email updates on our classroom and building a parent/guardian email list for each class. I would send an email to families at the beginning of each unit.  That email would outline essential questions and objectives for the unit as a whole.  I would also attach a link, if available, to an article or short story the students are reading in class, in order to spark shared literacy and conversation at home.

Designing Spiraled Writing Instruction: End-of-Course Reflection for Edu 6150

4.4 Designing Coherent Instruction in the area of Lesson and Unit Structure.  To me, designing coherent lesson and unit structure begins with the “backwards design” process:  First identify the enduring understanding or essential question and focus your learning target on one piece of that “big idea”; Next decide what counts as evidence of understanding and design assessments around that evidence; Then create learning activities that require and reveal understanding of the essential question. (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005)  The unit focuses on one essential question or enduring understanding; individual lessons have learning targets that “break down” the unit’s big idea into specific aspects, elements, or skills.


Notebook for Edu 6150, Image 1

The image above is from my  notebook for Edu 6150.  It records one of my reader responses to Chapter 9 in Wiggins & McTeague (2005). Understanding by Design.  Chapter 9 covers the implications of the backwards design process for organizing curriculum, and introduces the notion of spiral design.  In the notes I reflect on the way in which a writing curriculum I have used in the past embodies spiral design.  The writing curriculum I denote uses active verb vocabulary to build sentence-level, paragraph-level, then essay-level writing skills.  The curriculum returns repeatedly to that active verb “center” as a foundation for student writing, but builds increasingly longer and more complex types of writing around it.  Through my reading and reflecting on Understanding by Design I have come to understand this active-verb writing curriculum in a different way, not only as an effective tool for teaching foundational writing skills, but as a tool for creating student understanding about how and why active verbs build strong writing.

Edu 6150 Notebook Image 2

Notebook for Edu 6150, Image 2

In this section of my reader response notebook I ponder further implications of spiral design for writing instruction.   I come to understand that the “narrative” aspects of spiral design can be applied to the revision process, and to the way in which re-writing becomes a “story of return.”   In this way, the purpose of spiral design (“re-thinking”) informs a new understanding of revision’s role in writing curricula.  Revision is more than a way to improve student writing; it is a way for students to understand how narrative works and why revision creates strong narratives.

In these notebook entries, you can observe my own spiraled learning process.  I have returned to past writing curricula (active-verb based and revision-based) and thought about the potential they hold for increasing student understanding in addition to student skill.  One concrete step I will take to put backwards design principles into practice is to visually imagine lessons as a spiraled sequence.  This will help me to design writing instruction that has a coherent center of understanding as well as of skill, and help ensure that my students grasp the concepts behind specific writing practices.

Reference:  Wiggins and McTighe (2005). Understanding by Design. Alexandria, VA:  Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCA)

Careful Assessment Records help Colleagues and Students: End-of-Course Reflection for Edu 6918

8.1 Relationships with colleagues are characterized by mutual support and cooperation. Many factors contribute to cooperative relationships among teachers.  Clear and frequent communication, responding to requests in a timely manner, and sharing teaching resources and information are among them.  One important way to cooperate with colleagues and support student success is by keeping accurate and organized assessment records, so that as students move across grade levels teachers know what type of modification, scaffolding and enrichment they will need to provide for incoming classes.

Figure 1:

Screen shot 2015-08-17 at 11.40.08 AMFigure 1 portrays a concrete description of Professional Standard 3.1 that I wrote for an assignment in Edu 6918, Introduction to Teaching.  The description specifically addresses one way in which teachers can demonstrate knowledge of students. It also serves as an example of how good record-keeping enables professional cooperation. I suggested, “when the teacher has finished grading a set of papers, the teacher can record brief summaries of written comments on student papers in a file.”  Sharing these files with the next grade-level teachers would allow colleagues to note writing issues the teacher worked on over the past year and writing skills next year’s teachers will need to build on or address for their incoming students.  Such files also provide continuity in vocabulary used to teach writing concepts.

 Sharing information on student’s past skills and progress supports student learning as well as professional cooperation.  Donovan, Bransford & James (1999) identify three research findings with important implications for classroom practice: “Teachers must draw out and work with the preexisting understandings that their students bring with them” (p. 15)  By providing summaries of teacher feedback on papers, a teacher allows colleagues to effectively draw out and work with their students’ preexisting writing skills.

One specific change that I need to make in my own teaching practice is to develop an easily shared electronic system for tracking my assessment feedback. Because I have experience tutoring, I know the importance of maintaining careful notes on aspects of student writing that require extra development, modification, or scaffolding,  Digital files will better facilitate accurate and manageable transference of feedback on student writing for large classrooms and across grade levels.

Reference:  Donovan, Bransford & James, ed. (1999).  Ch.2 in How People Learn:  Bridging Research and Practice.  Washington, D.C.:  Committee on Learning Research and Educational Practice, National Research Council, National Academy Press.

Cognitive Development and the Importance of Story: Meta-Reflection for Edu 6132

3.1 Teacher recognizes the value of understanding students’ skills, knowledge, and language proficiency and displays this knowledge for groups of students.  As an English Language Arts teacher, understanding students’ skills and knowledge depends on understanding their language development.  One way in which we display our understanding of student language development is through story.  Here I have included a slide I made for a group presentation on cognitive development theories and their application in the language learning classroom.  The slide was created for EDU 6132:  Learners in Context.  Though simple in content, this slide represents my understanding of story as a complex teaching tool.

Screen shot 2015-08-16 at 12.28.49 PM

Self-efficacy requires self-understanding.  Vygotsky’s theory of language development describes a move from external to internal language; for Vygotsky, adult thought is dependent on the development of inner speech (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 154)  As educators, we need to address that “space between” external and inner speech, to help students move from heard language, or words on a page, to the internal voice that makes conversation and reading personally meaningful.  One way to do that is through stories, which create self-understanding  (inner speech) when the reader connects their own experience to the world of the book. One of the books I have pictured on this slide, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, provides just such a story.  In it, a toy bunny, Edward Tulane, begins life as a treasured but self-centered toy.  Over the course of his truly miraculous journey, Edward experiences many different kinds of homes and love.  But it is not until he is loved and needed, until his own gifts are drawn out, that Edward experiences the right kind of love, a love that allows him to become meaningful to himself precisely because he has become necessary to another.

Narrative explores and explains the development of self-in-context, across time.  In order to develop self-efficacy, students also require tasks that are appropriate to their cognitive, social, and moral development.  In accordance with Piaget’s theory, this means tasks that build on prior knowledge and provide “just enough” cognitive conflict for students to modify or expand their original beliefs.  From the perspective of Vygotsky, this means addressing the Zone of Proximal Development.  In terms of fostering self-efficacy, it means matching academic tasks to student competencies because, “Only tasks that are challenging for the learner, but not so challenging as to prevent progress, are capable of providing information to students that increases their sense of self-efficacy and promote[sic] their future attempts to meet challenging tasks.” (Pressley & McCormick, 2007, p. 265)

On a practical level, task appropriateness in the English Language Arts classroom translates into text appropriateness.   The work of a language teacher is literacy, and we teach literacy using texts.  If the text is too difficult, students cannot learn to read, interpret, analyze, conceptualize, or infer from it. Therefore, we need alternate, modified, and “choice” texts. Sometimes those can be texts rewritten and partially summarized for lower reading levels, such as the Early Classics series. Sometimes they can be children’s versions of a classic text, such as Gillian Cross’ version of The Odyssey.  And sometimes they can be a collection of “student choice” texts centered around a common theme, allowing greater student investment in what they read as well as better matching of student reading level to text.  Another of the texts pictured on this slide, The Bluest Eye, provides an example of a text that is available to a wide variety of reading levels and rich enough to provide meaningful comprehension, interpretation, and inference tasks.  But The Bluest Eye serves the student in another important way as well.  It is a narrative about cognitive development, and the attainment of self-acceptance through the ability to view oneself in different cultural contexts over the course of time.

Stories allow students to develop Theory of Mind.  In many ways, we can think about The Bluest Eye as a story that develops egocentric Theory of Mind:  a vision of self seen through the construct of otherness.  But true Theory of Mind requires empathy, i.e., understanding how other people feel and why they feel that way. Theory of Mind includes an ability to understand multiple points of view synchronously.  It is related to Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages of cognitive and moral development, since it describes a progression from egocentric thinking towards thinking that takes into account how other people see the world.  Unlike Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s theories of development, however, Theory of Mind postulates that children grow by becoming able to mentally grasp more than one “truth” at a time.  In other words, Theory of Mind requires individuals to hold onto cognitive conflict without resolving it.

So what does Theory of Mind have to do with stories?  Stories require us to fully cross the divide between self and other while maintaining separate and individual selves.  We retain our identity as reader, while experiencing the story through the “I” of the character about whom we are reading, from whose point of view the story is told.  And we experience not only the story, but the emotions and thinking of that character.  The text pictured in the center of this slide, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy provides a text that echoes the reader’s Theory of Mind experience.  Over the course of the story, a preacher’s son (the Buckminster Boy) connects with a new friend, Lizzie Bright.  Their histories and circumstances are radically disparate in terms of race, education, power, wealth, and gender.  Yet their friendship, like an empathetic reader, crosses this chasm of difference on the bridge of shared story.

The final image displayed on this slide is a quotation from a discussion thread I wrote about the difference between cognitive development seen through the lens of brain science and cognitive development seen through the lens of social science:

What I leave with is the importance of both of these types of stories in the classroom:  the story of what we can learn from universal or normative human experience, and the story of what we can learn from those who fall outside the norm, whose lives are defined more by difference than sameness. (Ellen Aagaard, Module 2 Discussion Post)

If I were to choose one way in which I would like to improve my use of stories in the classroom, it would be just this:  to increase my collection of stories.  Stories that allow students to connect with characters who are both like and unlike themselves.  Stories that address variance in language proficiency as well as the human variety that fills our classroom.  Stories that help students understand both themselves and others.

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