Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Making the most of the PARCC & Smarter Balanced writing tasks

Like educators across the country preparing for the PARCC and Smarter Balanced Common Core-aligned assessments, we have been paying close attention to the sample questions that have been released and noting how they differ from those our students have encountered in previous state-mandated standardized tests.

As educators in New Jersey, we have devoted most of our attention to the PARCC assessments. One of the most striking differences between PARCC and New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment, in our opinion, is the vagueness of the performance task writing prompts. For example:
  • Write an essay analyzing the arguments of X. Base the analysis on the specifics and arguments and principles put forth in the three sources. Consider at least two of the sources.

  • You have studied three sources on X. Write an essay in which you explore X. Consider how the different authors present/represent X.

  • Write an essay that contrasts the primary arguments in each text about X. Think about how each author supported his/her claim with reasoning and/or evidence.

  • Write an essay comparing the information presented in each text. Use evidence.
While it might be argued that the PARCC performance task prompts give students room to interpret and discuss the texts in different ways, they also give students very little to work with in terms of getting a handle on the texts and finding something meaningful to say about them.

The writing prompts in the Smarter Balanced sample performance tasks at least give students a particular purpose and audience for their writing.
Sample 11th Grade Smarter Balanced Performance Task:

Your Assignment:

After completing your research, you share your findings with your teacher, who suggests that you write an argumentative essay about financial literacy courses for the upcoming school board meeting.
Today, in preparation for the school board meeting, you will write a multi-paragraph argumentative essay in which you take a stance on the topic of financial literacy courses. Make sure you establish an argumentative claim, address potential counterarguments, and support your claim from the sources you have read. Develop your ideas clearly and use your own words, except when quoting directly from the sources. Be sure to reference the sources by title or number when using details or facts directly from the sources.
In both cases, however, this is where the tried-and-true graphic organizer, the T-chart, becomes a very valuable tool. In the weeks leading up to the assessments, giving your students opportunities to use T-charts with two or three columns to analyze multiple related texts is a great way to support your students’ success, and you can do so with content related to what you’re already teaching. Don’t forget to include a video or audio clip as one of the texts you use, so your students can practice their listening comprehension skills, which they will need to use on the research simulation task. (See our suggestions on how to use video in conjunction with written informational texts.)

Our friend Sarah Tantillo, author of The Literacy Cookbook and Literacy and the Common Core, offers a step-by-step lesson plan, as well as other helpful tips, for giving students this kind of practice. She also suggests how students can then use the PARCC assessment tool’s highlighting functionality to organize their thinking during the test itself.

While we do want to show our students what will be asked of them on the assessments ahead of time, that doesn’t mean we have to limit our instruction to what’s on the tests.

Despite our concerns about the assessments’ writing prompts, we have wholeheartedly welcomed the motivation the assessments have created to look for more opportunities to put great texts into dialogue with each other. So far, both PARCC and Smarter Balanced seem to ask students to put informational texts into dialogue only with other informational texts, and great things can come of doing so, but putting literary and informational texts into dialogue with each other can be immensely rewarding as well.

When we are working on units that use informational text to open up aspects of a literary work, one of our favorite tasks is creating discussion and writing prompts that really push our students' thinking and require them to make meaningful connections between the texts. Check out our model for doing so in the units we’ve developed for To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, and Lord of the Flies; then check out our resources that will help you get started in doing this exciting work with any text you might be teaching.

Your efforts will support your students’ success on the assessments and give them so much more!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Text to Text: Opportunities for rich, cross-disciplinary collaboration and learning

When we began this work, we had some idea of the rewards we would find in pairing great informational texts to with our favorite literary texts, and we hoped that our efforts would help language arts teachers and their students reap such the benefits more easily. However, as we continued creating units around such pairings and sharing our model for doing so, we found that these kinds of activities are perfect opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration that can enhance students’ engagement with and understanding of both literary texts and texts in content areas like science and history. (For this reason, informational texts provide ideal opportunities for preparing students for the CCSS-aligned assessments!)

Our second “Text to Text” feature, just published on the New York Times Learning Network, is an example of the rich, multi-faceted learning that can occur when a literary text, like Lord of the Flies, is put into dialogue with an article that opens up discussion of an important theme in the novel in a way that makes connections with students’ contemporary world and draws and/or builds upon their knowledge from another discipline. The New York Times article featured in this “Text to Text” lesson discusses a study of fruit flies that offers some possible clues about the source of aggression in human males. The lesson also offers extension activities on bullying and aggression among girls.

As we English teachers want to bring all kinds of texts into our classrooms, we can certainly use such a lesson based on the interplay between Lord of the Flies and the fruit fly article on our own, but it also offers us a great opportunity to collaborate with our students’ biology teachers and enhance student literacy in both disciplines. If you’re teaching Lord of the Flies soon, check out the lesson and then walk down the hall to see what your students’ science teachers will be up to in the coming weeks. The stars might be aligned for some fantastic cross-disciplinary collaboration!

If you’re not teaching Lord of the Flies, check out our “Text to Text” feature on A Raisin in the Sun or our volume of informational text units on To Kill a Mockingbird. Or take the plunge yourself, and start looking for great informational texts with our list of suggested resources. Share it with a content-area colleague and do this great work together!

If you are attending ASCD’s Annual Conference, we hope you will join us on Sunday, March 22, from 3-4:30pm, when we will be talking more about the benefits of cross-disciplinary collaboration! (We’ll also be doing so at ILA2015 in July!)