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"This is gold, Miss. GOLD! I poured my soul into this," Chris tells me as he staples his independent reading essay question/rubric to the essay he has just finished writing during our exam time.
Students in my high school classroom read. Because I need to build or re-establish a reading habit with the teens I teach, we read everyday for 12-15 minutes. Students log their reading on our digital Reading Record: a shared Google spreadsheet. Twice a year I ask them to do something formal with their independent reading: write an essay and deliver a book talk or trailer. I know who is reading and who is not based on the conversations I have and over-hear--accountable talk bubbles up once students become readers.
The second task sometimes shifts, but the essay as part of students' semester exam remains. I wrote about the essay questions and linked to samples in this prior post. I love crafting the questions for students. Because teens' tastes in stories overlap, sometimes questions do too--so after more than a decade of writing these individual assessments, I have a large question bank to help me write new questions. Every year, students tell me the individual attention makes a difference. Little do they realize how I've differentiated the questions too, but I'll get to that later.
I give students their questions a week prior to our exams. I build up to it. I talk about the kinds of questions I've written in the past and soon my enthusiasm rubs off on them. We spend question day reading student samples from prior years. We talk about other students' questions and how they approached them. We discussed what writers did well and what we can do better. After that review I ask, "are you ready for me to give you your questions?" This year one class yelled "Yes!" in unison. I got goosebumps.
I pass out the questions as quickly as I can and do a lot of kid watching to gage reactions. This year I heard a lot of students say, "I LOVE my question!" A few said they were excited to write their essays because as Karla mentioned, "I can actually write about my topic and it's interesting!"
After the questions have been read, reviewed and shared, I teach. I show students how to prepare for their essays by taking notes on the books they have read. I model a chart. I model how I would plan for such a synthesis essay. Students are allowed to use their notes as they write their response. Why wouldn't I let them? Not taking notes and feeling unprepared and being unsuccessful on the exam is a natural consequence. Natural consequences are powerful motivators.
So I have my first set of essays to grade now. It will be a tight turn around to have everything graded by Thursday and the semester's grades finalized Friday, but it is worth it. Imagine ending an exam period with this comment from a student, "Miss, I wish we had more time! I was having so much fun writing my essay. I could have said so much more."
Chris was right, this is "gold."
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Note to self: I don't have time today, but I'd like to also write about:
how differentiating levels of analysis or synthesis supports student writers;
how such questions enable students to show what they know in a myriad of ways;
how I can assess essays for specific students' learning (start to finish comparing cases);
how there are an infinite number of right answers.
Already I can see how Shelley is developing as a writer--this is her first analysis piece and she was able to synthesize ideas from several novels into a coherent whole AND she's freed herself from the confines of formulaic writing. Hooray! Written in an hour, her growth is obvious to me.
Everyone's Questions in a Grid
4th Period's Essay Questions with Scoring Rubrics (two to page)