The Magic of Metaphor

by Harmony Button

“As it becomes easier to think metaphorically, we begin to see more metaphors around us; and the more metaphors we see, the more bridges we have access to, inviting our connection to other people, to other perspectives, and to other possible outcomes.”
— Karen Hering

The Thinking:

The problem with discussing writing across the curriculum is that we as teachers don’t often spend a lot of time thinking, let alone writing, outside of our own specific disciplines. Luckily, our students are often more adept at thinking in multiple disciplines over the course of the day — they have to be, seeing as this kind of multi-faceted educational experience is at the heart of the liberal arts education. When the bell rings, they have to shift gears: physics to poetry, geometry to geo bee.

As a result, our students are ready, able, and in some cases, even downright eager to draw connections between their various class experiences. We all know that it is that sense of the inter-connectedness of things that actually makes us feel as if our education has broken through the borders of the classroom and entered into our understanding of life, the universe, and everything. And yet, sometimes, locked away in our own little disciplines, we forget how to actively foster that feeling in our students.

If you are looking for a way to help your students make these kind of cross-disciplinary connections, you can encourage them to use figurative associations to explore the relationships between their various studies. Try this simple form to encourage students to think metaphorically about their educational experiences: _______________ is like _____________ because _________________.

The Practice:

Figurative associations (like metaphors and similes) draw comparisons between two things, and they often require the author to think about analogies of structure in order to show how the two things are related. Metaphors are most often used to explain, clarify, or give further insight into the nature of one of the things. For example, if I told you that Parent Teacher Conferences are just like a trip to Disney World, I would rely on your knowledge of Disney World in order to clarify my description of PT Conferences.

The beauty of metaphor is that it is subjective: insert your opinion of Disney World here, and the above comparison becomes tailored to your particular experience. It is this subjective (and occasionally reductionist) nature of metaphor and analogy that makes them tricky — they can be misleading, and they can be manipulative, but they can also make things “click” for students who need help developing mental schema: figurative comparisons give students some basic mental rafters around which they can build the architecture of their thought.

The hardest thing about creating a figurative comparison is letting go of the literal connections between the two subjects. For example, as a PE teacher teaching basketball, if you ask your students to compare basketball to physics, you’re going to get a lot of kids who will try to tell you how to measure projectile motion, given the gravitation constant and (etc). This isn’t really a figurative connection. This is an example of using one discipline to talk about another one, and while the physics of basketball would be a fascinating topic, that’s not really what you’re asking them to describe. Instead, try asking your students to compare the experience of playing basketball with the experience of studying physics. An example would be to say, “playing basketball is like studying physics because both require an awareness of multiple forces, the combinations of which are difficult — but not impossible — to predict.” The point is, you don’t have to know anything about physics in order to give your basketball players the opportunity to create the analogy.

The Habit

Students are already primed to see connections between disciplines, and they get pretty excited when there is a cross-over in curricular content or theme. Giving them the opportunity to describe your subject matter in the language of another discipline can be a way of building a bridge from something they know (or feel confident talking about) to something they are only starting to explore. Inviting students to create figurative connections between disciplines is also just a really interesting way for you as teacher to see your own curriculum echoed back through the eyes of unfamiliar experience, which can be as enriching for you as it is for your students. The more versatile students become in their ability to see structural associations across disciplines, the more they will see their own education as honing the tool of the mind for all future ventures, instead of the filling of a brain-bucket with information.

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Writing Lists & Resolutions

by Harmony Button

As we welcome in a new year and welcome our students back into our same old classrooms, we often feel a kind of tension between a desire to refresh and a need to maintain our classroom habits. We all know what this looks like: the middle school students who seem to have forgotten, over the past two weeks, how to raise a hand or sit in a chair; the upper schooler who acts surprised that an assignment that was due before break will actually be marked late. Student re-enter the school paradigm and it takes them a minute to readjust to the established world order.

There is, however, a certain kind of energy to these first days back from break that can be quite exciting. Whatever the status quo might have been before break, it feels as if you have a window of opportunity in which you could shake it up: maybe now, that one student might start keeping a planner, or that other one might resolve to stop chatting in class.

It is with a healthy degree of salt that I offer this email about lists and resolutions, because we know that it only takes a day or two (or sometimes, a matter of hours) for that squeaky-new feeling to wear off. But if you’re interested in taking advantage of this window to encourage your students to change some of their ways, here are a few suggestions.

The Thinking:

List making is most often used as a way of declaring priorities an end result of the thought process but it can also be an incredibly useful tool for generating ideas. Asking students to make lists requires them to exhaust the old, tired, trite answers before they begin to dig up productive material. If you ask a student to list three ways that they want to improve their learning in the new year, they are likely to give you generic answers such as “study harder” or “stay organized.” These are functionally useless resolutions because they don’t address the situations or habits that might lead to these outcomes.

If you ask a student to continue listing, however, they run out of big-picture generalities and eventually get into what they think of as “lesser” answers, such as “always hold a pen during class” or “put my cell phone in another room when I’m doing math.” These are actually the kinds of resolutions that have a fighting chance of surviving in the real world, because they end up subtly changing the situation in which a student works.

As it turns out, our intentions (how we want to act) are incredibly weak in the face of situational habits. We are trained by our contexts, more than our intentions: once we re-enter a familiar situation, it is incredibly difficult to shift habitual behaviors inside that context. The good news is, it doesn’t take all that much to trick your mind into seeing the situation as different, in some way: this is why smokers chew gum when they leave the car and walk through the parking lot (a place where they usually smoke), or dieters eat with their non-dominant hand. For more information on situational habits, addition, and maintaining resolutions, check out this fantastic piece on NPR: What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits.  

The Application:

Resolution making and self reflection are not really effective when they are practiced as a one-time event. Think about asking students to write a series of lists, with increasingly focused topics. Focus on goals that are action or situation based, instead of driven by intention or desire. You can spread your list-making prompts over a few days, or dedicate a few minutes a week. Encourage students to pick a few manageable goals, and to keep them in mind throughout the day. Begin a class by asking students to pair-share one of their goals. End a class by asking students to reflect on how one of their goals influenced their class experience that day. Have a discussion on how goal-setting translates between classes: are their goals class-specific? How so? Have their been unexpected effects on their other classes? Pause mid-class to remind students to recall their goals (pick up the pen to take more notes, make more eye-contact, etc). Create a Canvas assignment to ask students to share their goals, and to discuss why they have picked those particular goals. Ask them to identify situations that trigger the old habits: does the hallway outside of the dance room have too many memories of chatting with friends, so it is hard to focus on work there? Do they try to read in bed (and fall asleep)? Identifying the habits that are associated with their particular situations will help students to think of alternatives, or ways of altering those situations significantly enough to give a new habit a fighting chance of taking hold.

As teachers, we know this, intuitively this is why we swap up the seating chart, or rearrange the furniture.  We do what we can to create a sense of a situation being “new” but then, we have to make sure that the changes in habit are positive ones.  New is not always better… but if you need to lay the groundwork for a change in atmosphere or habit, a change in the feeling of a space can lead to a shift in how people behave inside of it.  

The Habit:

List making and goal setting are habits of productive people, but they end up feeling trite or ineffective when we just go through the motions. We need to see list making as the beginning of a longer process: refining, rehearsing, and reflecting on those lists is actually the work that ends up paying off. Making lists is an act of brainstorming, and not everything on the list can or should be a lasting goal. Sometimes, the list is just the vehicle for change: a small shift in situation creates a new opportunity for a student (or, gosh, teachers) to develop new habits and practices. We can’t berate ourselves for reverting back to established behaviors if we don’t make the effort to alter the situations in which those behaviors were learned.

Welcome back!


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Using Rubrics to Evaluate Writing

by Harmony Button

Student writing is notoriously difficult to evaluate. No matter the task the student was asked to accomplish, there are always several factors that influence the efficacy of the assignment, and they all seem interconnected. When faced with student writing, teachers tend to be disproportionately influenced by things like handwriting, length of response, or our currently held perceptions of the student.

Here’s a concerning trend: the less effective a piece of writing, the less helpful the feedback we tend to give on the writing. The piece of student writing that is really struggling with ideas, structure and organization is often also plagued by mechanical errors in spelling, grammar, syntax (the way the sentence is organized) or diction (word choice). Unfortunately, when faced with a hot mess of an essay, we naturally gravitate towards commenting on the sentence level mechanical errors, instead of taking on the overall efficacy of the thinking, on a broader level. This is not the most helpful feedback to give to a student who needs to deal with the big ideas before grappling with the execution of those ideas.

Using a rubric as a means of evaluating different aspects of a student’s performance can help a teacher keep clear learning goals in mind, and it can help scaffold the feedback to the student so that they can better understand their own strengths and weaknesses.

The Thinking

A rubric is a document that describes the expectations of an assignment by listing the criteria on which it will be evaluated. Rubrics come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from simple checklists to elaborate charts. Some rubrics come with point values assigned to each category, so that completing the rubric results in a grade for the assignment. Some rubrics are designed to be more holistic, so that students can see how they measure up to expectations on a sliding scale.

If you haven’t ever used a rubric before, consider starting simple. Think about the foundational traits of your assignment: what kind of thought does a student need to engage in to complete your task? Usually, this is some kind of analysis or analytic assertion (a claim). Then, think about the logical presentation of this claim — what kind of synthesis, analysis, or explanation do you expect? Then you want to think about the structure in which you expect the student to respond. What are the conventions of your discipline? Then, think about issues of organization on a smaller scale — what is going on, on a sentence level? What do you expect for their sentence fluency, use of appropriate vocabulary, or tone of voice?
By scaffolding your evaluation in this way, you might realize that a student response that looks like a disaster is actually an example of solid thinking that is having a communication crisis. On the other hand, you might realize that a piece of prose that looks quite polished is actually devoid of analytic thought. The rubrics reminds you to take into consideration the different weight of each category (for example, you might want to forgive fluency issues in a test situation, but not on a final project) and it also provides some structure to your feedback to students, who often see every piece of marginalia on the page as an individual comment about that particular assignment, instead of an organized reflection on the overall writing and thinking skills of the student, as demonstrated in this particular assignment.

If you start using rubrics as part of your grading process, consider sharing the rubric with the students ahead of time, so that they can see the expectations on which they will be evaluated. You can also ask the student to use the rubric as a tool of self-evaluation: you can ask them to fill out the rubric for themselves (and justify their choices in writing) and then you can compare it against your own evaluation, to see how self-aware the student is about their own strengths and skills. You can use the rubric in peer review to give shape to the feedback and help students practice thinking through layers of revision. If you use rubrics frequently, you can compare multiple rubrics over time to see how a student has progressed in the pursuit of a specific learning goal.

The Application

Check out the rubrics feature offered through Canvas — at first, it seems like a lot of work to set up, but if you find a general rubric structure that you like, it’s actually very simple to “add” a rubric that you’ve used on past assignments. This is a really handy way to evaluate multiple assignments of the same type, such as response papers, discussions, thought-experiments, journal entries, etc. If you have students complete a certain kind of assignment on a regular basis, they actually often appreciate it when you use the same rubric to evaluate each week’s work, so that they know what to expect and can easily track their own progress.

Here are a couple of tips:

* Don’t discount your gut. Sometimes, you just know that the paper you are reading is a B kind of paper, even though your rubric says it is a B-. If assigning point values to each aspect of your assignment feels like it goes against your teacher-gut and you don’t like it, as a practice, you don’t have to link the rubric to the overall grade. You can use the rubric to rate specific qualities of the assignment, but then override the rubric’s output with your own letter or number. Sometimes, your gut will tell you to take another look at the rubric, and then you’ll realize that it doesn’t accurately reflect what you value in the assignment, and that’s why the grading scale seems off. A rubric is a grading tool and it can be as detailed or scaffolded as you want, but you are still the architect of the assignment. You are your own best grading tool.

* If you think that the use of the rubric is the death of personalized feedback, make sure you check the option on the Canvas rubric that gives you the ability to write comments to accompany each category.

* If it takes you an hour just to design a single rubric, simplify. A rubric doesn’t have to be the only way you give feedback on an assignment. You can pair the rubric with in-text comments and marginalia, and you can always include end-notes for summative evaluation.

* There are all sorts of free resources for designing rubrics.  If you want to check out a wide variety of options, do a simple Google search for Rubric Design, or check out this site.

* If you want a really basic structure for evaluating writing, consider these:

Basic Rubric for Analytic Writing: Claims, Evidence, Analysis, Organization, Clarity, Mechanics.

The Six Traits of Writing: Ideas, Organization, Word Choice, Voice, Sentence Fluency & Convention.

*  Rubrics work best when they feel intuitive and natural to you.  They should feel like a helpful form for providing feedback, not redundant busywork.  Here are a couple of examples of ways you can tailor your rubric to fit your thinking:

This version is a rubric without point values. You can treat each category like a spectrum, and put a check mark along the sliding scale, or you can write in the box to describe the issue.

Excellent Good Needs Work Missing
Claims & Thesis X
Evidence & context X
Analysis & explanations X
Structure & Organization X
Clarity: fluency & tone of voice X
Mechanics, format, & conventions. X

The next example is a rubric that assigns a point value to each category, and then leaves room for commentary.

Claims & Thesis Your thesis statement is solid, but you’re having trouble breaking it up into sub-claims for each paragraph. 12 /15
Evidence & context /15
Analysis & explanations / 25
Structure & Organization /15
Clarity: fluency & tone of voice Your diction (word choice) is effecting your tone. Try to stay in an academic tone. Phrases like “bummer for Odysseus” are too casual. / 15
Mechanics, format & conventions /15

The Habit

A rubric helps a student understand the expectations of the assignment before it is graded, and can be used as a tool to guide the student during the drafting process. Rubrics also help teachers stay on mission and avoid the “halo effect” of grading for students they expect to produce strong work (or the opposite). Using rubrics helps organize a lot of feedback and information for the student, and reinforces student self-awareness of skill sets and learning goals.

A bonus: rubrics in Canvas can be built to include “outcomes” — a learning goal that is shared across the department. If you want to see how many students in the Class 10 are still having trouble with sentence fragments (or factoring in math, or referencing primary texts in history), you can pop that “outcome” category into your rubric, and then your department chair can collect all kinds of statistics that could be useful to us as we design curriculum.

If you have any questions on how to design a rubric that would be helpful to you, or you just want someone to walk through the process in Canvas, feel free to stop by or shoot me an email.  I’m happy to help if I can.

Merry Rubrics,


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Planning A Syllabus: Scaffolding Learning Goals for a New Term

by Harmony Button

Welcome to Winter Term!  As you build your Canvas courses, upload your syllabi, and plan out exactly what kind of unit will fit in the three week window between now and winter break, here are a couple of ideas on scaffolding your assignments over the course of the term. This kind of thinking is not necessarily linked to writing, but it can certainly manifest in written projects or reflections. These are not groundbreaking concepts, but a quick overview might help provide some perspective on this coming term:

The Thinking

The poet WB Yeats believed that humans experienced time through alternately loosening and tightening funnels called the “gyres:” twin converging spirals that overlap at their pointy parts. This image of intersecting conical spirals comes to mind whenever I think about the relationship between the content of my course, and the skill sets I wish teach and refine: as I emphasize course content, I lose time I would like to dedicate to practicing skills, yet if I set aside material content, there is nothing on which to practice the skills.

This relationship between content and skill set is naturally one that shifts, depending upon where you are in your course. You may like to front load a class with reading (content) so that class time can be dedicated to application and discussion (skill sets). You may take a day to lecture (content) so that you can assign an essay or lab later in the week. You might plow through a dense unit in a couple weeks so that you can culminate in a self-directed research project toward the end of the term.

Sometimes, we don’t always take the time to think about how this balance between content and application plays out over the course of the term — and how the sequence of assignments we design can be used to scaffold skills, leading up to a culminating project. Putting some thought into the trajectory and intention of how your course builds skills (as well as develops content knowledge) can help sustain momentum and maintain a sense of purpose (for teachers as well as students) through the long winter months.

The Application

If you’ve taught this course before, take a look at the final exam that you gave, last year. What kind of questions did you expect your students to respond to, and how did you expect them to go about responding? Are these the same goals you have for this year’s class? What specific skills do your current students need to build, in order to reach these goals?

Review what new forms of thinking your students learned, last term. Overtly address these modes of thinking. Ask them to identify and describe these practices: inductive reasoning, deductive reasoning, geometric proofs, multi-source synthesis, close reading — whatever.

Identify new types of thinking your students will encounter this coming term, and try to situate them in the context of modes of thinking they have already encountered. If you will continue to practice and refine similar skills as last term, try to define and describe how the bar will be raised.

Think about your culminating project / paper / lab / exam. See if you can identify the modes of thinking that will be required for that project. Begin to design smaller projects that isolate and target these skills, building in an iterative practice of performance and feedback. Begin to combine skills and complicate assignments later in the term. Explain this scaffolding to students, so that they are keyed in to their own skill-building process and can practice accessing previous skills (ie, thinking about stuff they’ve already done) while they reach towards new goals.

The Habit

People like to know where they are: geographically, socially, metaphysically. The more we can map out our proposed learning paths for students, the more likely they are to stay on course during the journey to come. The more carefully we envision the balance between content and skills, the less likely we are to be surprised or disappointed in what our students can or can not do. And the more intentionally we look to our plans for the coming weeks, the less likely we are as teachers to fall into ruts of teaching: when we have clear learning objectives, we are more likely to adjust our own teaching habits and patterns to match the evolving goals of our classrooms.

Good luck in the gyre!

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Progress Reports

by Harmony Button

The following was a letter addressed to faculty members during finals week at the Waterford School, a time in which teachers were composing written reports of individual students’ progress to present to parents. 

Dear colleagues, 

The end of the term is a tricky time. Time behaves oddly — what promise to be leisurely long afternoons during finals week turn into an ever-accelerating rush towards another new term. We feel stressed, but lack the structure of class periods to give us a sense of immediate accomplishment. The work bleeds into the break, through the break, into the next term. We come back exhausted.

Perhaps this is not universally true, but it is a common enough experience that I felt compelled to address it in this week’s Writing Across the Curriculum email. Grading aside, one of the common reasons that teachers feel stressed in this season is the pressure they feel in the face of Progress Report writing.

I have heard from many teachers that they feel some anxiety over the process of report writing. The stakes seem really high: many teachers feel judged on their writing skills and tone of voice, as well as their content. Here are a few thoughts on writing progress reports, especially for those among us who do not frequently write for a living. I can’t create any more time in your schedule, but maybe a tip or shift in perspective might help you get some traction:

The purpose of progress reports:

In the term of MS/US-wide post-Canvas roll out, the purpose of a progress report became a moving target. The goal of an end-of-term report is often to sum up a student’s successes and challenges over the course of a term. This information, however, is readily available via Canvas. If you keep the kind of grade book that is heavily annotated with comments and feedback, a progress report of this variety is, in many ways, redundant. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth writing, for other reasons, but I would suggest that the purpose behind progress reports has been subtly shifting.

Instead of being purely informational, many parents look to progress reports as evidence of a teacher’s investment in their student — they want to know that we care about their children, and know them personally, and have an eye out for their individual learning patterns and habits. They want to know how their children are doing… but more importantly, they want to know that we know how their children are doing, beyond the stark statistics.

This is one pitfall: I want to polish and polish each report until it is the perfect kernel of communication, until it demonstrates how much I care about each student, and how well I know them, and how I have thought deeply about how they might improve their learning experience in the future. This is an impossible task. It takes forever and often involves layers of personal anecdotes and parenthetical commentary on learning strategies. It comes out feeling gangly and over-written. I am emotionally drained, and the sun has set. And then there 79 more to write.

On the other side: Say I have 80-some progress reports to write (some of you have more — I know). I see the purpose as communicating information about a student’s standing in my class, so I make some comments about their general demeanor and then cite some statistics about how they have performed in different categories. I come across as cold and disinterested, and all of my content is kind of useless — it is all information that is already available to a parent via Canvas.

The balance: You want to write a brief, personable, meaningful commentary on a student’s current progress in your class. This means that A) you do not need to finish grading all the finals before writing the report, and B) you do not need to touch upon all categories and elements of their experience this term. You need to sound like someone who keeps an insightful eye on this burgeoning young learner — you need to demonstrate competence and clarity, not a comprehensive overview.

What does this look like?

A good deal of your tone of voice is carried in your syntax (sentence structure) not just in your diction (word choice). This means that you can use many of the same words, but combining sentences or rearranging them can effect the overall tone of your commentary. Of course, watching your diction is also really important (I would love to get Darren to set Google Docs to auto-correct “lazy” to “struggling to demonstrate follow-through on difficult tasks”) but most teachers are already pretty well attuned to word choice. Here are few ideas for sentence structures that can help you convey multiple types of information, while also smoothing your tone:

1. Good news + bad news:

Although he _________________________ (successful skill), NAME still struggles to ___________(target skill).

2. Context + action + consequence:

In __________________ (context: ie, testing situations), NAME can become __________________, which leads to _____________.

3. Identify the behavior, vs. making value judgements:

I have noticed NAME _________________ and ______________, which suggests that he might be ___________.

4. Propose a solution:

One way NAME might avoid _________________ would be to ____________________.

5. Offer your support and encouragement:

NAME has demonstrated good _______________ and ________________. If he would like to get my help on ___________________, I would love to see him be able to _________________ in the future.

If, upon re-reading your progress reports, you’re still not satisfied with your tone of voice, take a look at your punctuation. Sometimes, lack of proper punctuation makes you sound gruff and abrupt. On the other hand, overly elaborate sentences can lose clarity or make you sound evasive and insincere.

Managing the Progress Report Writing:

Design the arc of your progress report. You want to greet the reader with something positive, continue on to something that proves your knowledge of their unique student, and then close with an eye on the future. You can do this in several different ways. If you’re looking for a basic structure, here’s one that will rarely lead you astray:

1. What’s happening in class
2. What’s happening out of class
3. Opportunities for growth
4. Strategies to achieve growth

Or you can try this structure:

1. What’s going well
2. What needs work
3. Strategies for growth
4. Opportunities for the future

Or I’ve heard of some teachers who use this structure (although I have a caution about it, below):

1. In the beginning of the term…
2. By midterm….
3. Now …
4. Looking ahead…

In Closing:

— Even in very short forms, tone of voice is really important. This is what tells the parent that you know and care about their child.

— Longer is not necessarily better. If you feel yourself spinning off into great detail, feel free to refer the reader to specific elements of your Canvas account where they can find more information, or offer to set up a meeting or conference time.

— Be careful of treating progress reports as a play-by-play of the entire term. You may be inclined to slide into descriptions of performance or statistics, rather than a description of learning habits and skills.

— Resist making judgements of character or physical appearance, positive or negative. You don’t know how a parent will feel about you calling her daughter “a really lovely girl with a smile that lights up the room.” Besides, what does that have to do with her classwork?

— Writing good progress reports, even short ones, is really exhausting, because it is an exercise in empathy and awareness, not just a collection of data. Try alternating your report writing with other small tasks, to give your brain (and your heart) a chance to recharge.

Good luck, all. I’ll see you on the other side.


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Writing & Test Anxiety: An Interview with Dr. Sari Soutor

by Harmony Button

Last week’s WAC email addressed writing in final exam situations, and made some suggestions for teachers as they designed exams. This week’s email takes a look at the student experience of test anxiety when they are faced with writing exam questions.

To help me out with this week’s discussion, I’ve turned to Dr. Sari Soutor, a clinical psychologist on staff at the Waterford School. Listen to our conversation, or check out some of the main tips below:

The Thinking

Although writing can be used as a therapeutic tool to help students express their thoughts and feelings, many students can face a debilitating sense of paralysis when faced with a timed writing event. In order to overcome this feeling of writer’s “block,” students can make use of relaxation techniques and pre-writing exercises. Students who struggle with any issues of perfectionism will also struggle with the writing portion of the in-class exam, because they will want to produce a polished project in one sitting, and won’t see the opportunities for revision and drafting in the context of the exam.


The Application

Relaxation: remind students to take the time to relax, before they begin to think or write. Small movements such as tapping alternate fingers on the left and right hands or even wiggling the toes of the left, then right foot helps to coordinate the two sides of the brain, as well as giving the student something else to focus on for a moment (thus alleviating some of the anxiety experienced upon receiving the exam).

The “Brain Dump” encourage anxious students to turn the test over and “empty out” the details and information that they are worried about losing. This kind of cumulative list of “stuff I know” helps a student begin to form schemas for that information (they see what goes together) and they can refer back to this as their own personal memory “bank” as they work through the exam. This repository of information doesn’t have to be complete in order to help a student remember other information that might fit into it, and it helps students who tend to second-guess themselves, because we know, statistically speaking, that a student’s first “guess” is their best guess.


The Habit

The more we as teachers understand the way that students experience our exams, the better prepared we’ll be to write exams that elicit the best possible performance from our students. We’ll also be better prepared to coach them in ways to navigate the variety of exams and timed-writing events that they’ll experience in their lives.

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Writing in Test Situations

by Harmony Button

“We could improve our use of exams by taking four basic actions: 1. teaching students how to write essay exams, 2. building in more opportunities for process into the exam setting, 3. improving the focus and clarity of our exam questions, and 4. establishing more consistent grading criteria and improving grading methods to improve reliability.”  — John Bean, Engaging Ideas

As you write and plan for your final exams, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind on the use of writing prompts in high-stakes exams.


The Thinking:

Final exams are stressful for most students, often disproportionately so. Warning: this is purely anecdotal evidence but from my conversations with students, it seems like they tend to stress over final exams at a level that doesn’t correspond to the possible impact on their grade.  If both a final exam and a final paper / project are each worth 15% of their total grade, the student often experiences greater anxiety over the exam, rather than the paper or project. If anyone has read any studies about the differences between testing stress and project stress in an end-of-term environment, I’d love to hear it, but my general impression is that comprehensive projects that come to a head over the course of several weeks are just not as panic-inducing as sitting down in a silent room filled with pencil-biting peers and facing a timed, cumulative exam.  

But here’s the point: students are more likely to compromise their academic integrity when they feel the stakes of the test are high and the possibility of acquiring answers is relatively easy, whether it is premeditated (such as smuggling in notes or working out a system of sharing information with a partner) or spontaneous (such as glancing at another student’s paper “just to check” the answers). One aspect of an “un-cheatable” test is one the use of written responses, rather than multiple choice, matching, or other select-the-answer options. (See, Cheating Lessons). 

As we all know, however, written responses on tests are incredibly time consuming to grade, so we often avoid these questions in pursuit of sanity and self-preservation as we contemplate the grading crunch from fall to winter term. Here are a couple of reasons you should consider building in more writing-based exam questions this term:

1. Well-designed writing questions can ask students to simultaneously demonstrate and synthesize content knowledge: students have to prove they can know the significance of the information, which quickly helps teachers separate out the students who have mastered the material from the students who have memorized the information.

2. Writing takes time to create as well as to grade: in terms of your grading, you should remember that although grading MC questions feels fast, students also move through these questions quickly. While grading writing is quite time intensive, it takes a lot more time for a student to write it (ideally) than for you to grade it, so the student / teacher work ratio is actually closer to the MC questions than it feels like… although the effort and attention required in evaluating these writing samples is undoubtedly much higher than the mindless grading of matching questions.  

3. While many students are daunted by writing questions, these questions can also be more forgiving than more quantitative evaluations: a student has the chance to work their way through a problem, to get partial credit, or to justify their thinking in a writing prompt. Students should all look at the writing portions of their exams as opportunities to demonstrate their thinking processes, not just to regurgitate rehearsed responses.


The Application:

The problem with essay exams is that they frame the writing process as a performance: asking students to think and compose under pressure is less than likely to evoke their best writing. Timed writing exercises are particularly anxiety-provoking for nervous writers, and as the difficulty of the thinking (as well as the stakes of the assignment) rises, the “quality” of the writing (in terms of the mechanics and clarity of the writing) often goes downhill.


Here are a couple ways to build writing into an exam so that even nervous writers can stay on course and use it as a learning (as well as performative) experience:

1. Build in short answer questions that ask students to justify or explain answers that they gave on more quantitative questions: alternate the quantitative question with the “so what” question.

2. Scaffold the writing process, even in an exam setting. Break the task down into stages, and give credit for each stage. Depending on how much brainstorming or mind-mapping your students are comfortable with, you can give credit for 5 minutes of notes / brainstorming, or you can just scaffold thinking with somewhat leading questions. For example: A. List three reasons why the Ishkabibbles became farmers. B. How did farming practices impact political developments in the Ishkabibble empire? C. Explain the failure of the Ishkabibble empire as compared to the relative stability of their successors, the Whosits.

3. Improve the clarity of your questions: troubleshoot your writing prompts by running them by your colleagues, so you can be confident that you’re really asking what you mean to ask. Try to consolidate prompts to ask one good question, rather than firing off a slew of questions that are intended to spark ideas. [Hint: if you want to ask leading questions, consider framing them in the pre-writing prompts, rather than in the essay question, itself otherwise, students sometimes see all the questions as a checklist and they try to “do” all the questions, which results in a terribly disjointed essay].

4. Set context for questions: define an audience, even in an exam situation. Explaining a concept to someone in particular may help ground some nervous writers.

5. Use exam writing as the basis of a revision assignment once you return a graded exam, ask students to re-write their least effective written response… or, ask them to expand on it in a new way, or relate it to a new lesson.

6. Built-in self-reflection in the final exam format never hurts and it can really help you as a teacher to gauge your students’ attitudes toward the exam.


The Habit:

Writing in exam situations is an odd, awkward kind of writing that often seems counter-intuitive to everything we know about the writing process (that it is best when done in communities, that it requires multiple drafts, that it is a learning tool as well as means of performance) but, it is a commonly required skill that will serve students well. If we can talk to students about the challenges and opportunities of timed writing tests, we can help them navigate the perils.

As far as grading exam writing goes, teachers should be really wary of their own biases: by the end of the term, we tend to be pretty heavily influenced by what we expect to see from a specific student, and this bias creeps into our evaluation of their exam writing. Grading with a short list or rubric of what you’re looking for in the writing helps to eliminate grading bias, as does the practice of grading blindly (don’t look at the student name). This clear list of your goals and priorities for the writing also helps expedite the grading process, and teachers are less likely to get hung up on mechanical details such as poor handwriting or spelling (which can disproportionately influence our expectations of overall quality of the writing).

Asking students to write during their final exams promotes the kind of end-of-term synthesis that we hope for in all disciplines. Expressing written ideas in a timed testing situation is skill that we value, even as we acknowledge the pitfalls and challenges of this task.  


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The Writing Center

by Harmony Button

“Our job is to produce better writers, not better writing.  Any given project is for the writer the prime, often exclusive concern.  That particular text, its success or failure, is often what brings them to talk to us in the first place.  In the [writing] center, though, we look beyond or through that particular project, that particular text, and see it as an occasion to address our primary concern, the process by which it is produced.” 

Steven M. North


The Thinking: 

What is a Writing Center?  At its best, a school’s Writing Center can be the beating heart of the liberal arts philosophy: this is a place where students see connections between disciplines and a place where they can cultivate the critical thinking skills that apply to all of their endeavors. The Writing Center is a mirror to the mind: students bring in their written work and experienced consultants provide feedback on how accurately the students’ words reflect their thinking… and then, students are better prepared to see how their thinking reflects their personal voice, their identity, and their burgeoning sense of self. In the Writing Center, the goal goes beyond getting the student to complete a better paper the goal is to empower the student to be a clearer thinker, and therefore, a stronger writer.

While the result of Writing Center consultations is often a measurable improvement in student performance on a specific assignment, the philosophy of the Waterford Writing Center is to always turn the difficult work back over to the student, and to guide each writer into the heart of the most challenging (and therefore, interesting) aspects of their assignments. If you listen in on a Writing Center consultation, you will notice that our faculty consultants rarely tell students what to do instead, they ask the student to frame their own goals, and then they coach each student on how to achieve these goals. More often than not, students leave the Writing Center with more questions than they came in with… but with a greater sense of the depth and potential of their particular project.


The Application:

The Writing Center is a resource center designed to serve all MS and US students. It is organized by Casey O’Malley and staffed by our fabulous part-time writing consultant, Bethany Bibb. Students can sign up for consultations through their Canvas calendars, and consultations are available during most lunch periods, as well as after school. The Writing Center is physically located in the conference room across from Amy Dolbin’s desk, and we have an online presence through the Waterford homepage.

The Waterford Writing Center is in its second year, and has been expanding to meet a growing demand for writing support across all disciplines.  Both Casey and Bethany have been working to increase student participation in the Writing Center and we have seen student usage of this service nearly double within the first few months of school. Casey has developed an online sign-up through Canvas for all MS/US students, she has implemented a system to send feedback from the WC directly to each student’s teacher, and she is also overseeing the training of our first Peer Tutor in the Writing Center, a program that we hope to see expand in the future.  The Writing Center is also home to a brand new Middle School Newspaper club, an entirely student-driven initiative that publishes the Raven Eye paper once a term.  The Writing Center also hosts and promotes other extracurricular writing opportunities such as creative writing and essay contests, and in the coming months, Casey has also promised to bring about World Peace and find the cure for the common cold. 

How you can help: please encourage your students to make use of the Writing Center for any project where they are synthesizing and presenting information or ideas in a written format. These can be presentations, posters, papers, lab reports, or interview projects. Expect to hear from Casey or Bethany if they have any questions on the expectation of the assignment, but students should be in the habit of bringing assignment sheets and clarifying their goals at the beginning of their consultations. Stop by to see what’s going on in the Writing Center, or if you’re curious about learning about ways to give your students feedback on their writing, especially if it is in a discipline outside of the Humanities.


The Habit:

Good thinkers get feedback on their thinking. One way people can express their thought processes is through writing. The Writing Center is not simply a resource to remediate poor writing, but an institution that promotes a culture of feedback: all good writers crave feedback, and their growth happens through discussion, not through getting all the right answers.  A healthy Writing Center can be a sign of a healthy school, where students see their intellectualism as transcending disciplines, and where all faculty members value independent, analytic thought. 

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Why Teachers Should Write

by Harmony Button

Writing about our experiences, figuring out what they mean, and then hearing that writing discussed and questioned lets us create a kind of productive detachment from our own lives which makes our identities visible to us. We realize how our lives are shaped by our race, class, age, gender, regional, and religious backgrounds, and see how they could easily have developed very differently.  We can become more open and less judgmental of the lives of others, like our students, or the parents of students.  The more teachers become aware of their own identities, the more likely they are to see their students more clearly.” 

— Meg Peterson

This week’s writing tip is focused on teachers’ writing and writing lives, and is based primarily in this article: Why Teachers’ Writing Matters.   

The Thinking: 

Like many wonderful things writing-related, I got this article from Casey O’Malley, director of our Writing Center Next week’s Writing Across the Curriculum digest will address some of the philosophies and strategies of our Writing Center but for this week, the attention is turned on you, dear teachers.  

Here’s the theory: writing as a learning tool is as useful to teachers as it is to students.  The writing process strips away all the politics of timing and vocal articulation that are present in conversations you have the luxury of having your say, examining your words, re-evaluating your ideas, and then refining your expression.  You get to consider your tone of voice by looking it in the eye, rather than hearing it come out of your mouth.  If you want to hear yourself, rather than just express yourself, put it in writing.  (Do not mistake this for a claim that written communication is more effective or valuable than conversational communication it is just a different creature, and one that we tend not to expect from students as often as we expect them to engage in verbal discussions).  

The mastering the skill of “productive detachment” is essential to student success, not just in their writing assignments, but in their ability to see themselves as flexible, adaptable learners.  We talk about it in terms of how to respond to tests or academic set-backs, but sometimes writing projects help a student to internalize this tactic of “productive detachment.”  And one way we can show students that this is a healthy way to gain insight into their own thought processes is by practicing it, ourselves. 

The Application: 

There are lots of ways to show your students your own writing process. Here are some ideas: 

1. Plug in the overhead projector.  Embrace the awkward process of composing an answer to a writing prompt in real time, with student input and feedback.  Let them see you struggle a little, misspell words, write sentences that don’t make sense… and then fix them.  Talk them through the bits that you’re happy with, and the ones that you’re not satisfied with, yet. 

2. Share models of your own thinking or writing.  If you give your students a writing assignment in a class, see if you can make one of your own, and read it to them after they have already turned theirs in.  Or, if they’re really struggling to know what you’re looking for, read it to them ahead of time (or something parallel if you don’t want them to get fixated on your version and feel like they have to write something exactly like it).  

3. Find ways of offering bits of your own writing on your home pages or Canvas accounts.  Look for opportunities to create real-world connections to your subject matter.  Offer a study tip of the week, a contemplation of a favorite quotation, an anecdote of the time you were chased up a tree by a mama moose, or a memory of the first teacher who really turned you on to math.  

The Habit: 

Teachers are humans, and students benefit from seeing their teachers as thoughtful human beings.  Writing is a practice that often reveals the humanity of the author, whether it highlights personal experiences or just reveals the thought process of the speaker.  When students see their teachers as writers, it helps them learn that writing is a lifelong skill, not just a task that is unique to the school environment.  Writing is framed as a normal life process, not just an assignment or hoop we expect them to jump through.  

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Writing as a Tool of Discovery

by Harmony Button

Don’t just write what you know.  Write what you want to know.  — Melanie Rae Thon

The Thinking: 

In the fall of 2014, I had the pleasure of taking nine students to the Lake Effect Writers Conference.  This conference featured three prominent writers who read from their work and presented various different methods for entering into the writing process.  

Melanie Rae Thon is an unflinching, careful, beautiful writer and teacher who almost always looks to research to ground her work.  She read from a long lyric prose piece called “The Exclusion Zone” which described the cleanup efforts and continual fall out following the Chernobyl disaster.  Her advice to the young writers gathered for this conference was to use their writing practice as a way of expanding their knowledge bases, instead of just rehearsing and performing content that was comfortable to them.  She told them to write about things that wanted to know more about not just things they already knew. She told them to use their writing to find the gaps and discover what they still needed to learn before they could continue. 

The Application: 

Recently, I’ve been talking to a couple of history teachers about the technique of asking students to write short scenes or dialogues between famous figures in order to demonstrate their various stances on significant issues.  Personally, the idea of writing historical fiction seems completely daunting there is so much research involved in accurately presenting a world!  But this seems like a pretty useful way to discover what you don’t know.  So often, in our writing, we try to communicate what we already know, but we fail to see the blind spots.  Certain techniques of fiction setting, dialogue, character description can serve to reinvigorate a sense of wonder, waking the senses and letting students realize how much they don’t know… yet.  This seems to be particularly useful in the historical realm, but I would be curious to hear if anyone is able to adapt this technique to the sciences or arts, as well.  

Note: it seems like these so-called “creative” assignments are often used across disciplines as a way to pique interest, but they can be a little bit weak in terms of real, challenging, legitimate content Don’t fall into the “bonus points” mindset of using creative assignments as a way of buoying grades.  Set up your parameters ahead of time, define them clearly in the assignment, and then hold students to your expectations.  If you’re asking a student to write a letter from a famous scientist following an important discovery, then push them to make that letter as accurate as possible, conveying a sense of excitement, confusion, hesitation, or whatever that scientist might have been experiencing at that time, given what you know about the context of the discovery.  If you’re asking for dialogue between two artists of various styles, define the topics: 1. a defense of personal aesthetic, 2. an appreciation for the other’s work along with a parallel to their own, 3. a question or confusion regarding the other’s work and 4. an appropriate tone of voice and sense of character to fit each artist as you know of them.  

The Habit: 
fiction writing techniques in various disciplines to set historical figures (or mouthpieces of various principles) in context allows students to see these concepts as grounded in human beings and human beings are always more complicated, diverse, and broad ranging than a single discipline would suggest. Asking students to “play” with these figures helps them to remember the details of the concepts, allows them to see their “blind” spots where they could acquire further knowledge, and encourages them to see the interdisciplinarity of the real world.  

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