Last week, Lou Cercone introduced me to his 9th grade English students at Lockport High School, and we spent two short days beginning to define what quality idea development looks like together. Writing instruction is a district-wide learning focus, and Lou was interested in observing a lesson that was reflective of what we’ve been learning for the last several years.
He asked that I position myself as the leader of this coaching experience. This is what I planned to demonstrate:
- Lesson design for student-centered learning
- Alignment to a relevant and measurable objective
- Engagement with appropriately complex text
- Acting on what has been learned about the needs of these writers through formative assessment
In recent years, we’ve begun asking teachers to share what they are learning about their students as writers and to use different kinds of evidence to inform their hunches. We’ve learned that we need to do a better job of helping students:
- Compose expository text
- Gain clarity about what quality looks like
- Realize that learning involves collaboration and the revision of thought and work
So, that is what I had on my mind when I went about planning this demo lesson:
I wanted these writers to be able to define what quality idea development looks like in expository writing. Knowing that this is the work of months and years rather than minutes and class periods, I planned to use this opportunity to begin their learning and determine what could be done to continue it.
I began by asking them what the difference was between a good idea and a great idea, and we anchored that comparison in a study common ideas that they perceived to be either good or great.
A telephone is a good idea. A cell phone is a great idea.
A stereo is a good idea. An iPod is a great idea.
What’s being said about the quality of these ideas? I wondered aloud. Are they good or are they great? What, specifically, is guiding your decisions?
“That’s a hard question,” I was told.
I hoped that it was.
And if you would like to use that video in class, be sure to cut it short because there’s an unfortunate bit of profanity at the end. ; )
Next, I changed the context, asking them if the criteria they generated could also inform how they approach writing with a critical lens. Inspired by David Coleman’s recommendations, I didn’t stop to deliver a definition of idea development to them here, though. I didn’t model it for them either. Instead, I shared several pieces of complex text with them and asked them to use what they learned from their conversation and what the pieces revealed to create a unique definition of their own. Then, I challenged them to independently fleece out specific criteria as well:
This can demonstrate to Lou what these beginning writers know about quality idea development and inform next steps. What does the first column of the sample below suggest about that? How would this guide what you do next as a teacher?
I chose to ask writers to talk with one another. They were asked to pool their thoughts and ideas and allow the work of their peers to inform their own learning further.
Then, they began to draft a collaborative rubric, which required them to evaluate the contributions made by the group as a whole.
“We have to think AGAIN?” a few of them asked me.
Yes, you do. Post-its were moved, removed, and revised.
“I’m interested in your process,” I asked them. “How did you decide which criteria would make it on to your group rubric?”
“Those criteria were better.” I was told.
“That’s a really hard question!”
“Um…I know! The words were better.”
In what way?
“They were more intelligent,” one writer suggested.
“No, they weren’t more intelligent,” another member of her group challenged.
“Yeah they were–or maybe they were just more specific,” the first speaker added.
“This rubric has to be helpful to ME,” said the writer whose sample is posted above. “I need it to be really specific. That’s what makes ours good.”
As writers left class, I provided each a Post-It note and asked them to define some specific criteria for quality idea development, based on all that they had learned. The Post-Its were attached to the individual rubrics and left with Lou, so that he could study how each writer’s thinking changed and consider where he would need to head next.
A collaboratively designed rubric for idea development has begun to emerge from work of these writers. You’ll notice it isn’t perfect. It isn’t intended to be. This rubric is a genuine reflection of what Lou’s students think idea development looks like. It was designed by them, and it can inform our next steps as we learn more. It should also change, evolve, and grow with them as they consume and analyze various texts and learn more over time.
Rubrics can be a reflection of what students are discovering rather than a tool used to judge or assign grades. As teachers, we can even use what we learn about quality rubric design to provide feedback to student designers on drafts like these as well.
- I was surprised by how readily most of the students attacked the text provided and worked to generate a definition and supporting criteria for idea development. This was rigorous work, and I did not invest much time in pre-teaching or modeling. I expected that they might struggle and then quit. They struggled and persevered though, although a handful of them required more support and prompting than others.
- I’m wondering how students who are unable to define the elements of writer’s craft or the specific criteria that speak to their quality can compose or improve upon pieces of their own. If we can help writers define and notice specific elements of writer’s craft, will this enrich their own work as well?
- This type of instruction demands a great deal of restraint, particularly when writers are struggling. I felt compelled to answer questions for them, provide them definitions and examples, and generally enable them to escape their discomfort. I think that I’m beginning to embrace the notion that deep learning is uncomfortable, imperfect, and much slower than I feel I have time for. How can I help teachers feel comfortable doing the same, especially those who feel that they will be negatively judged for creating such discomfort?
- I’m wondering when it is appropriate to provide writers a rubric that has been designed by an expert and what the purposes would be for doing so. Does this ever make sense? If so, when? If not, what further shifts in practice will need to follow?
- This process could and should be enabled by the use of collaborative writing tools like Google Docs. Kids could also access and explore varied texts online. They could also research idea development and locate their favorite examples to share with their peers.
- In order to inspire a rich and complex understanding of idea development, it’s critical for writers to consume varied texts and study this element of craft through a variety of lenses over the course of many years.
There is so much more that I could share about this experience and what I’m wondering as a result of it, but I’ve thrown enough text onto the screen for one day, and I can imagine that many people weren’t able to make it this far. Tell me what you’d like me to speak to more, though. What are you wondering?