When I first started teaching, I was trying to impart information. I was doing what I was told for reasons I hadn’t really thought about. I used standard types of literature study guides that focused on details to “make sure the students were really reading.” My vocabulary tests were spell the word, define the word. The essays were graded on the State Scoring Guide (six traits).
Five years in, I made a sad little poster that focused on the key ideas and skills in my classroom. I had decided that whenever a students asked “Why do we have to do this?” I would give them a real answer.
Ten years in, I mentally changed comprehension to critical thinking. I realized somewhere along the way that I wanted to create free thinkers. Instead of giving loads of quizzes, I had loads of discussions. We talked through all aspects of stories, characters, plot development, symbolism (to be fair, not every class can handle a discussion heavy environment, so fresh quizzes do get written more for certain groups). Because I wasn’t putting it into a practice test, most of my students had an easier time grasping the concepts and cementing specific examples in their minds. This helped my students when it came to standardized tests.
Five years ago, Oregon joined the national movement away from state standards and into the Common Core. I had already learned from Oregon’s Certificate of Advanced Mastery (CAM) debacle to take one or two things from Common Core and not worry much about the rest. It became apparent within the first year that Performance Tasks were really hybridized Work Samples (a CIM/CAM standard). When I read through the ELA standards in August of 2010, it quickly became apparent that Common Core was focused on three things (which was reinforced in a variety of “fear the test” and “embrace the reform” workshops). Common Core wants students to understand information, assessed the information, and communicate what they have learned. I would add one more necessary skill—evaluate the source of the information.
Twenty years in, I give open (handwritten) note vocabulary and reading quizzes. I look to student notes: study guide answers, daily summaries (what was it about? what was the message?), annotations in the text (usually on post-it notes), and various discussion questions to see if the students are reading or engaging with the text. I understand that a percentage of students would rather skim Spark Notes than listen when I read out loud or read the small number of pages assigned as homework. My quizzes focus on application and connection rather than details.
I am a font of weird facts, many of them I acquired reading fiction. It’s funny that I’m more likely to be able to figure out whether interesting facts in fiction are real more easily than some of my students are able to figure out what’s real from blog posts, Facebook, or Twitter. I want them to dig a little and discover whether or not a person, organization, or website is actually reliable. They have so much information available that the details matter less than the ability to assess, evaluate, toss aside or synthesize do.
I still teach my students the skills and language they need to read literature. They still write papers and paragraphs. They still have discussions. What I’m looking for should continue to change. The nature of the questions for study guides or discussions should change as society changes, as education changes, as my students’ needs change.