Friday, June 15, 2012

End of Year Assessment

I end the year feeling relatively happy with what I accomplished in my "Honors" Junior classes.  There we have a more or less coherent curriculum ("American Literature"), and I know that most of my students can do things now (recognize and speak intelligently about the most famous works of American literature) that they couldn't before.  Some of my students fell in love with Henry James and Edith Wharton, reading Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence on their own; others loved Vonnegut, Morrison, or Junot Diaz.  They all have a pretty good idea who Whitman, Dickinson and Wheatley are.  They can talk familiarly about modernism, post-modernism, and the Transcendentalists.  They've been to Walden Pond!

I feel much less happy--not to say completely dispirited--about my Ninth grade "Standard" classes.  In those classes I tried many things, and none of them worked very well.  I tried to split the class time between whole-class texts and independent reading.  For some kids, the independent reading was great.  Other kids did everything they could do to avoid actually reading.  The best I can say is that the in-class independent reading worked, like nothing else I've ever done, to reveal the real problems that are often, in a more conventional curriculum, hidden from view.  I now know that some students really, really, really struggle with and dislike reading--at least most books, at least so far.

With a conventional curriculum, it's easier to pretend that you are reading a little bit even if in fact you're not reading at all.  You can use Sparknotes, you can fake the reading homework, you can glean something from what the teacher or other students say, and often you can participate in class discussions and activities.  Failing any of those, you can always claim, or the teacher can imagine, that it is just the assigned book that is failing to fire your interest.  You are a reader, but not of this book--or so you claim.  With in-class independent reading, the non-reader is terrifyingly exposed.  Sitting there with his book is for him a form of torture--and what's worse, public torture.

If actually reading is important to improving literacy, and I can't see how it couldn't be important, then I have to figure out how to get these kids to read.  One thing I might try next year is starting the year with children's books, trying to have everybody in the class remembering--or (for those who struggled terribly in the very early grades, discovering--that reading is really fun.  In the first two weeks maybe we can move from Dr. Seuss to Jack and Annie to Matt Christopher to Roald Dahl to Harry Potter, and some students can stay at the level at which reading is actually fun and not feel bad about reading Matt Christopher instead of Dennis Lehane.

I really, really want my students to learn how enjoyable reading can be.  I asked my freshmen to write about a book they liked this year, and a number of them wrote some variation of: I usually don't like to read, but there's one book I truly loved.  Usually this book was either a Sonya Sones title or The Hunger Games, but I think it's really important to try to help them find more than one book or author that they love.  Some literacy researcher, I forget which, talks about "home run books," books that turn non-readers into readers; my experience this year says that one home run book is not enough. How can I get them to go beyond Sonya Sones?  I need more books, we need to spend a lot of time trying to find books that they like, and some of the kids are going to have to read easier books...

Over the summer I'll think all this through more, but for now I just want to note down four goals I have for next year:

1) I want my students to read more.  To that end I plan to buy a lot more books, including easier ones, take them to the library more regularly, and do more reading in class in a more structured way.  (I will also cut out the non-fiction independent reading unit that I tried this year and that largely failed--the kids did a good job of writing non-fiction, but because the books were just not appealing enough, most of them didn't read much of it.  David Coleman can come in as a long-term sub and do that unit if he wants to.)

2) I want my students to learn more vocabulary.  This year I had them learn vocabulary words drawn from the books we read as a class, and yet they made, as a class, less than a year's progress in their vocabulary level (I gave them a vocab assessment in September and in June).  Next year I am going to have them pay attention to words in the books they read on their own and make their own vocab tests from those words.  I also hope to be very intentional about using a lot of higher-order words in class myself.  Last week I used the word "behoove" a few times, and many of my weakest students loved it.  I'm skeptical about whole-class word lists, but I hope that modeling and encouraging word-love (and upping the reading volume) can make a difference

3) I want my students to do more close reading--in the form of mark-ups, socratic seminars and passage essays.  I need to find difficult, high-interest texts or excerpts.

4) I want my students' writing to be more polished.  They have to get tough with themselves about the mechanics of their writing.  Too many of them produce work that is embarrassingly sloppy, and they just keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.

I still think independent work and independent reading should be a big part of English class, and I want to do even more of it next year, but I now see even more clearly that you have to not only lead a student to books, but create a social system in the classroom that helps him pick out good ones and encourages him to read them.


  1. > Last week I used the word "behoove" a few
    > times, and many of my weakest students loved
    > it.

    I've started saying BEHOOVE out loud, just to make myself laugh.

    1. Yeah, it sounds oddly bestial. Here's a micro-poem about it:

      Tweet from the volcano

      Love the way the word "behoove"
      makes the human mouth move:
      owlish hoo or monkey's moo.
      (We speak their speech and never knew.)