This Project Changed the Way I Teach Constructed Response

Editor's Note: As a Professional Learning Community (PLC) team leader and a 6th-grade English teacher, Jim Meininger (who is also a Scope advisor) had been using Scope quizzes (like this one) to practice constructed-response questions all year. In January, his students were still making many of the same mistakes they'd been making in September. So Jim and his PLC colleagues embarked on a bit of an experiment. Their goal was to unify their teaching across the grade, identify any instructional weaknesses, and help students improve their constructed responses. Here is what happened—and how you can learn from what they did.

 

My colleagues and I wanted to assess how we were teaching constructed-response questions across the entire grade. (There are 16 of us ELA teachers in the 6th grade with 400 students between us.) To do this, we used This Is What Courage Looks Like, the play from the November 2016 issue of Scope about a young woman named Claudette Colvin who stood up to injustice during the civil rights movement. We had each student write a one-paragraph response to one of two questions:

"What made it difficult for Claudette Colvin to be courageous?" or

"Was Claudette Colvin’s courageous act worth the consequences she faced?”

Then we gathered all the responses and scored them according to a rubric that we had created together (provided below). The idea was not only to unify the way we were teaching, but also to find out where our students needed extra support across the entire grade and to give them unified feedback. To our surprise, we found that most of our students were struggling with the very same skills.

 

 

 

What you'll need:
any Scope text. For this activity, we used This Is What Courage Looks Like, the play from the November 2016 issue of the magazine.

Skills:
supporting a claim, text evidence, organization

Time:
two 55-minute periods

 

Step 1: Create a graphic organizer

  • Together as a PLC, we created a graphic organizer to help students develop their responses to the question. (You can download the organizer below and modify it to work with any Scope text.)
  • The graphic organizer requires students to find two pieces of text evidence to support their answer and then write each component of their answer: topic sentence, transition sentence, text evidence, commentary, and concluding sentence.

 

Step 2: Develop a rubric

  • We developed a rubric to score the students' answers to the constructed-response questions. (You can download it below.)
  • The rubric assesses five key skills: developing a topic sentence, writing a transition, using text evidence, writing commentary based on that evidence, and overall organization.

 

Step 3: Score the answers

  • Each teacher scored his or her own students' answers according to the rubric.
  • We then got together to discuss the results. We discovered that there were many commonalities.
  • Overall, students successfully constructed topic sentences and included the title of the text and the author. However, about a third of the students did not include the question as part of their answera new skill for them this year. About a quarter of the students had a hard time using text evidence to support their claim. And the vast majority struggled to articulate a main takeaway in their concluding sentence. It was certainly surprising to find that across the board, our students were struggling with the same challenges. 

 

 

Step 4: Critique the answers

  • We decided to take our findings back into the classroom. Each teacher selected four sample responses—one sample response that scored a 1, one that scored a 2, one that scored a 3, and one that scored a 4—and shared them with their class. (Teachers selected responses by students in their colleagues' classes and kept the responses anonymous so as not to embarrass any students or have them critique their own work.)
  • We asked the students to critique each answer and make suggestions for how each writer could improve their answer. Here's one of the responses that my class critiqued:

In the drama “The Is What Courage Looks Like” by Mack Lewis, it is sometimes difficult for Claudette Colvin to be courageous. Claudette lived in Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s when segregation was still at large and life was unfair and hard for African-Americans. Because of segregation, Claudette went to a “colored” only school, which already made life difficult for her. “Nearly a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that segregating schools was unconstitutional. But so far, nothing had changed in Montgomery” (18). In the play, it also says, “The officers yank Claudette from her seat. Her schoolbooks fall to the floor. One of the officers kicks her” (20). Also, she was found guilty of three charges and the kids in her school shunned her. When you get hurt, mentally being shunned or physically being kicked, it makes it hard to be courageous, you feel like you have already failed. This made it very difficult for Claudette to keep on being courageous, but even when all of this happened to her, she still stayed strong.

Students gave the following critiques of the answer:

  • The writer successfully included a strong topic sentence/claim, and included the text's title, author, and genre.
  • The writer did a good job of building context for the reader (explaining what segregation in the 1950s was and its effect on African-Americans).
  • The first piece of text evidence only summarized what was going on in the 1950s in the U.S., while the second piece of text evidence did a better job at providing solid evidence as to how Claudette was courageous.
  • The writer did a good job pointing out that a person could be physically AND mentally hurt by these experiences.

 

What We Found

This PLC project showed us ways to unify our teaching across the grade. Now all the 6th grade ELA teachers use the rubric so all students are being scored the same way. This project also helped us discover exactly where the weaknesses in our instruction were and where we needed to provide scaffolding, such as modeling concluding sentences and providing sentence starters such as these:

In the play "This Is What Courage Looks Like" by Mack Lewis, Claudette Colvin . . .

Claudette lived at a time in the United States when . . .

It was difficult for Claudette to be courageous. For example, . . . This shows that . . .

 

At our school, we are fortunate to have common meeting time. Being able to work together on this project for two whole periods allowed us not only to discover instructional weaknesses, but also to brainstorm solutions together—a huge asset! This was the first activity that we did together as a PLC, and we're already planning on doing another one like it next year.

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Meininger is a 6th-grade English and Social Studies teacher at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, California. He is also a Scope teacher advisor.

 

 

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