As Winter Break approaches, students in my 7th grade Language Arts classes are wrapping up work on their second quarter projects. They have spent more than three weeks writing short stories about a picture they each chose from the Chris Van Allsburg book The Mysteries of Harris Burdick.
During that time they have learned the following things:
- Strategies for opening hooks
- How to write vivid descriptions using sensory details
- How to develop dynamic characters
- Effective plot structure including resolution of conflicts and tricks like flash forwards and flashbacks
- Tense shifts and how to avoid them
- How to write and punctuate dialogue correctly
- How to use online tools to create visual storyboards
Students have participated in peer editing and learned to give targeted feedback that builds their classmate’s writing up without making them feel small. That exercise has helped us to create a more positive classroom culture and strengthen the relationships that form the foundation of everything we do in class.
The stories reflect the individuality of my students themselves and are anything but standardized. They run the gamut from historical fiction to romance to fantasy to horror and everything in between. One of them includes a demonic platypus, and another explores the meaning behind the magical sunglasses from the 80s cult classic science fiction film They Live.
Over the past month I have watched students come alive through unbridled creativity. I’ve seen children with learning disabilities work twice as hard as their non-disabled peers to make their brilliant story ideas come to fruition in print. I have watched writers, unprompted, conduct research for their projects so that they can add authentic details and make their stories richer. I’ve been blown away by the deep level of engagement I’ve seen in them all.
My intent is not to boast, as this type of profound learning occurs in countless classrooms around the country every single day. Rather, I bring it up to make a larger point.
Much of what my 149 students have gained while working on this story project will not be measured on our standardized tests. It won’t be reflected at all in the data which is supposed to capture successful teaching and learning in our schools.
But I guarantee that for the majority of them it will be the learning experience that has the biggest impact on them in 7th grade English. This project has shown my students how their writing can shine when they are hardworking and intentional, and it’s my belief that the lessons they have learned will shape their approach to writing in the future.
I’ve been talking with a lot of colleagues lately about the urgent need to reimagine how we gauge the success of our teachers and schools. Besides just plain getting it wrong, our current measures serve, intentionally or not, to drive a privatization agenda that starves our public schools of the resources they so desperately need. In North Carolina, those measures include “value-added” EVAAS ratings for teachers as well as school report card grades that assign an A-F letter to each school based on students’ ability to answer multiple choice questions.
The WestEd Leandro report which was released last week calls for the same change over and over: a broadening of our definitions of school progress to incorporate other important indicators which are currently ignored.
I believe that most educators want to be evaluated on more than just their test scores. That’s not because we want to hide our failures. It’s because teachers want the world to know what we are doing right.