How Do You Eat an Elephant? Preparing for PARCC Writing, Part 2
On November 7, I wrote Part 1 of this blog, which explained the first bite our school took as we began to “Eat an Elephant”; in other words, how we began to tackle the task of preparing our students for the rigorous writing demands of PARCC. Readers of Part 1 will recall that after an initial information session with all of our teachers in September, we convened teachers by grade-level in mini-retreats to look closely at current curricula, and identify ways where we could implement meaningful shifts. Since then, teachers have been working tirelessly as they keep a critical eye on their instruction to ensure that students are being pushed to be critical readers and writers. The 8th grade ELA team, in particular, has made significant changes to their curriculum.
8th Grade Mini-Retreat
At our school, Reading and Writing is divided up into 2 blocks: one hour of reading, and one hour of writing—each taught by a different teacher. In late November our Middle School Principal, Emily Charton, met with our 8th grade Reading and Writing teachers. Teachers came to the meeting with their unit plan calendars for the year, which included an overview of the standards, assessments, skills and texts that they had mapped out in the beginning of the school year. Together, we reviewed the 8th grade task generation models and decided to focus our discussion specifically on the Literary Analysis task foci. As we looked through what we currently teach, we noticed that there were clear overlaps between our Reading and Writing curricula, particularly among the following standards:
Key Ideas and Details:
Craft and Structure:
Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.]CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.2
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.3
Analyze how particular lines of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama propel the action, reveal aspects of a character, or provoke a decision.
Analyze how differences in the points of view of the characters and the audience or reader (e.g., created through the use of dramatic irony) create such effects as suspense or humor.
Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.8.9
Analyze how a modern work of fiction draws on themes, patterns of events, or character types from myths, traditional stories, or religious works such as the Bible, including describing how the material is rendered new.
Each of the three ELA teachers mentioned covering these standards to some extent, but recognized that their units would be stronger if they collaborated on their unit planning and aligned their expectations for the students’ writing. Rather than dividing up standards for the Reading teachers to focus on, and standards for the Writing teachers to focus on, we decided to approach these tasks holistically. After all, the students are going to be asked to read a text critically and write analytically about it, so why not use this time to vertically align our Reading and Writing expectations? We decided to put a critical eye on the Writing class’s Literary Analysis Unit.
Nadiya Ledan, 8th grade Writing and Reading Teacher
Nadiya brought a unique perspective to our mini-retreat because she teaches two sections of 8th grade Writing, and co-teaches 8th grade Reading. With a strong sense of both the reading and writing curricula, Nadiya was easily able to identify ways to capitalize on the skills students are being taught in reading class and applying them to writing class, and vice versa. As a deeply reflective teacher, Nadiya was eager to use help from her colleague to discuss ways in which they could prepare their students to be critical readers and writers.
There were five key steps Nadiya and the ELA team used from the initial planning of the unit to the final assessment.
Step 1: Choosing the Standards
Together, the team as brainstormed ways to make a previous literary analysis unit more PARCC and CCSS aligned. Upon closer look at unit plans and standards, we identified standards RL 8.2 and RL 8.6 as specific areas to focus on.
Step 2: Creating the Assessment
Next, we designed the final assessment—the writing prompt and the rubric for the literary analysis essay. We knew that we wanted students to be analyzing multiple texts, and writing about point of view and theme. After several drafts, we came up with the final prompt:
Step 3: Identifying the Skills
We then discussed the writing skills—specifically writing a claim, selecting evidence, and analyzing evidence—and decided that these were the building blocks for an analytical essay. Nadiya developed guidelines and expectations for the students to follow when looking at each of these parts:
Step 4: Selecting the Texts
Once we knew WHAT we were going to teach, we started to think about HOW we were going to teach. Nadiya wanted to keep “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell– which she used when she previously taught in this unit last year–as her anchor text. This is an engaging text, and in her experience, led to rich discussions centered on colonialism and imperialism, which the students were fittingly studying in their history class. The text also lent itself nicely to the standards centered on analysis of theme and point of view. Our teachers discussed ways to embed nonfiction articles about Burma, colonialism and imperialism into the unit. The Reading and History teachers shared texts and resources that they knew would align well to Nadiya’s unit. They shared texts, images, and video clips, all of which the students used on their path to writing their literary analysis essay. It was a true collaborative effort.
Step 5: Seeing the Unit in Action
It was a true joy to watch this re-vamped writing unit unfold. Not only were students reading and writing critically and independently, but they were also actively speaking and listening to each other as well.
After the writing process and hours of hard work, here are their final products:
Though this was just one unit, and we all recognize that there are always areas to improve upon, we feel like we took the next bite into eating this large elephant, this large task of teaching and guiding our students to be critical thinkers. As we think about the mini-retreat, at no point did we ever start from scratch to create a brand new unit. Instead, we thought differently about the writing tasks, and revised the unit plan from there. Preparing our students for PARCC and the Common Core Standards does not mean that we as educators need to work harder. It means that we have to work differently. It means that we have to think deeply about the kinds of tasks we are asking our students to complete, and the kinds of texts we are asking them to read.
We continue to take it one bite at a time.