Tag Archives: CCSS

Data Driven Instruction = Stress



It is the middle of October and I have not posted one entry to this blog for the present school year. Why? Well that is not a simple answer.

I decided to make the change from full time Computer Literacy and part time ELA teacher to full time ELA. I moved out of a fully staffed computer lab to a classroom that has seen better days.

But I was able with some creative lighting and help from the custodial staff to build a cozy environment. I didn’t realize that I needed to accommodate up to 39 students in this traditional classroom.

I was asked to attend some NMSI training this summer that helped me to finally get a grasp on close reading and how I could dig deeper. In August I was excited and ready to greet my 8th grade ELA students.

While the admin welcomed us back with fanfare, it was soon apparent that things were changing. Poor test scores resulted in our system adopting a data driven approach to instruction. Teachers learned to create better tests to accompany the pre/post assessments that would be administered every three weeks. ELA plans to four modules with three units each. In addition to the multiple-choice tests, students must learn how to do the kind of writing assessed by Tennessee in February. That means writing assessments must be regular as well. In addition to these tests, students have taken the ACT EXPLORE test as well as a universal screener in ELA and Math for RTI placement.

Almost all of our weekly collaborative planning has been spent developing common clear targets, pre-assessments, and post assessments. While one teacher in our department was named facilitator, it is clear that the academic coach, who also attends these meetings, is really in charge.

I receive regular pop-in visits from the three building administrators, the academic coach, and the district middle school director. The feedback from these people has been minimal so I am not sure what they are there to observe.

My students are scoring no better nor worse than my peers and they are making progress but the scores are not high and parents are concerned. I have spent much time defending a practice I am not sure how to defend.

To say I am stressed is putting it mildly. My blood pressure has now reached the point where I refuse to take it. Just looking at the cuff of the machine raises my anxiety.

Despite all this I keep trying. I read anything that seems like it will offer a better way to help students  to read and write critically. I listen to my students, their parents, and my peers in person and online. I  still have hope when most days my twenty plus years of experience seem useless.

End of the School Year Reflection



Wow, I just looked and February was the last time I posted here. Preparing for state mandated assessments and the end of the year seemed to have filled my extra time.

I thought I’d reflect on some of the highs and the challenges of this school year.

I fully implemented the Common Core standards. There was some initial push back from students and their parents but as both began to see improvement that lessened. Tennessee has not initiated the PARCC assessment yet so this may prove to be a challenge in years to come.

The students and I worked hard to be ready to complete a Writing Assessment based on the new standards. While I was unable to see the prompt, they seemed pleased with the first writing but thought the second piece difficult. Today is the final day of school for teachers and writing scores have not yet arrived. The students also did not receive their quick scores for the state ELA assessment. I am discouraged for them as much as me. How do you rationalize spending so much time prepping for something that everyone seems to think is so important but be so cavalier about reporting results? To say the students were disappointed is an understatement.

The journey while challenging reinvigorated my teaching. I had to rethink the explicit teaching model and decided how to correlate it better toward things like a close reading lesson. That kind of deep reading takes time and I discovered that I can adapt the model but it will cover several sessions of instruction vs. a daily lesson.

I am also rethinking my choices for anchor books. I have two advanced classes next year and realized that they need more challenging material. I am looking for text complexity in ideas every bit as much as vocabulary and sentence structure.

When I made the move to middle school ten years ago, I was open to teaching anything. The principal was impressed with my background in computers and placed me in that position. It was soon very clear to her where my passion was (hint – not the work stations) and she encouraged me to integrate literacy skills wherever I could. Before long, I began to pick up overflow classes in ELA. I have tried hard to make this situation work. I truly believed I could not teach the way I wanted to unless I had the computers. All of that changed this year. I realized that none of what I thought was important mattered. What mattered was my students and helping them learn to become better readers and writers. So.. I am moving out of the lab to a full time 8th grade ELA position and couldn’t be happier. An added plus is my daughter coincidentally teaches at my school and will be right across the hall. We are giddy with all of the possibilities!

I am writing this from the airport, ready to fly to my vacation home in Italy. I hope to rest, eat good food, and investigate some new places. When I return it will be for numerous trainings and planning for the wonderful (and challenging) school year to come.

Paraphrasing the Writing Assessment Rubric



If you have to create work for assessment, it helps to understand how it will be assessed. The TN Writing Assessment uses a rubric designed to complement the CCSS outcomes.

To prepare for this important test of student writing, I thought an examination of the rubric would help. The language of this document is “teacher speak,” often difficult for young learners to grasp its meaning. We performed a close reading of the rubric.

Because this is an advanced ELA class, we specifically focused on the Level Four expectation, the goal for each student. That did not mean the rest of the rubric was ignored but the goal of the lesson was to comprehend the expectations of the highest level of the rubric.

Step One: Read each category of the performance level four section and highlight the words you do not understand OR you believe the average student would not understand.

Step Two: Decide what the words means used in context and then look for a synonym of the word that is student friendly. Replace each of the words with the synonyms.

Step Three: Read each of the performance levels of the categories: Development, Focus/Organization, Language, and Conventions. Underline the words/phrases that changed as the level performances grew. Identify the key ideas of the each performance category.

Step Four: Paraphrase the Level Four expectations. Students worked in small groups with a place mat strategy to come up with the paraphrasing.

Step Five: I then put all of their ideas together and recreated a paraphrased Level Four Rubric. Students copied their ideas onto a new rubric grid.

Based on an idea from Crazy Lady Teacher,  I have implemented a weekly self-assessment based on the clear targets for the week. The following is a very thorough example of one’s student’s ideas.

SW 1








Preparing for the State Writing Assessment

Screen Shot 2014-01-12 at 10.51.53 AM

My ELA students will be taking the TCAP Writing Assessment the first week of February. In the past the prompts were rather silly and except for having students practice with past prompts, one hoped for the best.

Last year Tennessee provided its first CCSS based prompt. Students compared two pieces of nonfiction text. My preparation was minimal as that was the kind of writing they had done most of the year. They did quite well for a first attempt at this kind of writing assessment.

This year the assessment will be more rigorous. Students will have to write two essays. The first will be an analytical summary of a text and then some type of expository or argument prompt that analyzes the first text with a second text. Preparing students for a two-hour assessment is something to ponder.

Although, my students have been composing text-dependent writings all year I believe they needs some instruction on how to be successful on this assessment. Based on some suggestions from a fellow teacher who also happens to be my daughter, I am going to begin with these activities.

a. I have divided the rubric for the assessment into its sixteen parts. Students will be given one part and asked to find the three other sections that match their category and share out their observations.

b. Students will conduct a close reading of the language of the rubric, annotate unfamiliar words, locate the definitions of those words, and then paraphrase so that they understand better what is expected of them.

c. Students will conduct a close reading of a sample prompt and directions for writing an analytical summary, annotating for key ideas. I will ask several text-dependent questions so assess understanding.

What is the difference between a summary and an analytical summary?

What are central ideas?

What practices will prevent an adequate score?

What is the best way to cite the text?

d. Students will assess an exemplar of an analytical summary using the TCAP Writing rubric.

e. Students will write an analytical summary on how to write an analytical summary.


Of course these are just plans. I look forward to how it plays out.






Resources for Unit Planning: Argument Unit Part 4



Standards ✓

Summative Assessment ✓

Now it’s time to gather resources. Since I am somewhat of a hoarder when it comes to accumulating vast amounts of potentially useful materials, this can be a daunting task.

I have included a sampling of useful sites for me.


Web Resources:

Common Core Specific Web Resources:

Many of these are collaborative resources offered by teachers who are experiencing the transfer to Common Core. And while I use these resources regularly nothing replaces live collaboration. I am looking forward to NCTE 13 in Boston this week. Many of the leading experts in the field of teaching literacy will be there and I will be taking notes!

GoAnimate and CCSS

I (like 44 other states and the District of Columbia) am trying to find ways to help students to use text to support claims as well as look at a variety of other outcomes to show that one understands the reading. Currently our class is “digging into” the work of Edgar Allan Poe. After several sessions using close reading strategies, we have moved on to applying what we have learned.

We are focusing now on the revelation of character. The students were asked to have the narrator of “The Tell-Tale Heart” explain himself as a character using text evidence. The platform I chose was GoAnimate, a very easy to use animation creator. Embedded is one student’s vision of the assignment.

Like it? Create your own at GoAnimate for Schools.

Standards, Standards, Standards: Argument Unit Part 2



Unit planning begins with the standards. The state has adopted the Common Core State Standards, so that is where I begin. The following standards pertain to the idea of reading, analyzing, and writing arguments.

Key Ideas and Details

RI.8.1 Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

RI.8.8 Trace and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, distinguishing claims that are supported by reasons and evidence from claims that are not.

Comprehension and Collaboration

S/L.8.3 Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and relevance and sufficiency of the evidence and identifying when irrelevant evidence is introduced.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas

S/L.8.4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence, conveying a clear and distinct perspective, such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning, alternative or opposing perspectives are addressed, and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and a range of formal and informal tasks.

Text Types and Purposes

W.8.1 Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence.

a. Introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.

b. Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.

c. Use words, phrases, and clauses to create cohesion and clarify the relationships among claim(s), counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.

d. Establish and maintain a formal style.

e. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the argument presented.

Phrasing copy and pasted from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy.

Author Jim Burke has broken the standards down to help understand what is needed to produce the outcome. With this help, I created a list of objectives.

1. Define and identify the parts of an argument: claim, evidence, warrant, counterclaim, and rebuttal.

2. Define and identify types of claims: fact, values, and policy.

3. Distinguish between claims with support and those without support.

4. Define and identify some common fallacies use in argument.

5. Distinguish between arguments that are sound and those that have fallacies.

6. Define relevant/sufficient evidence and evaluate arguments based on those ideas.

7. Evaluate point of view with respect to spoken argument: subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and speaker.

8. Identify various propaganda techniques and how they may apply to a speaker’s message.

9. Evaluate a speaker’s argument with regards to claim and supporting evidence.

10. Distinguish between effective and ineffective spoken arguments and explain the differences.

Burke, Jim. The Common Core Companion, the Standards Decoded, Grades 6-8: What They Say, What They Mean, How to Teach Them. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Literacy, 2013. Print.

I then tweaked the objectives to create student clear targets in the form of “I Can” statements.

1. I can define and identify the parts of an argument.

2. I can define and identify types of claims.

3. I can distinguish between claims with support and those without support.

4. I can define and identify some common fallacies.

5. I can distinguish between arguments that are sound and those that have fallacies.

6. I can define relevant and sufficient evidence and evaluate arguments based on those ideas.

7. I can evaluate point of view with respect to spoken argument.

8. I can identify common propaganda techniques and how they apply to a speaker’s message.

9. I can evaluate a speaker’s argument with regards to claim and supporting evidence.

10. I can distinguish between effective and ineffective spoken arguments and explain the differences.

11. I can write an argument in a formal style that is logical and provides supporting details with credible references.

12. I can use words, phrases, and clauses to make my argument coherent and explain the relationships between and among claims, counterclaims, reasons, and evidence.


Unit vs. Lesson Plans: Argument Unit Part 1



I enjoy planning for instruction! I liken it to a puzzle in which I take the pieces (resources) and piece them together to fit my needs.

I am concerned by the number of teachers who post complaints on Facebook, usually on Sunday night, complaining about the hours they have spent in lesson planning.

While I realize profusely that this is none of my business, I cannot help wonder about the practice of writing weekly lesson plans. Only viewing your course through short snippets seems to prevent understanding terminal goals or outcomes. How can one see the big picture by focusing one week at a time? If your lesson plans are completed on Sunday night how then does one prepare materials ahead of time?

These concerns prevent my indulging in such practices. I plot out the year by focusing on big ideas through a theme. That theme is broken into smaller more definite subtopics. Through the subtopic, I then attempt to match the Common Core State Standards focusing on those that help meet the essential question for the unit.

OK enough gobbledygook! Here are some specifics. The course is 8th Grade ELA. The overarching theme is “Finding New Solutions to Old Problems.” The subtopic is “The Holocaust.” The unit that I am planning for now is to be used in January for the third nine weeks of school. Instruction for the first semester focused on strategies to read and write informational text and literature. We are now ready for a more focused reading and writing in terms of “Argument.” During the course of this unit students will learn to read/analyze arguments as well as write a sound and valid argument. My challenge is as follows:

  • Identify the CCSS that meet the needs of reading, analyzing, and writing arguments.
  • Locate resources that demonstrate how to teach students to read, analyze, and write arguments.
  • Revise those resources to meet the needs of my students.
  • Adapt the resources so that they help students to understand the Holocaust and the anchor book, “Night.”

In future postings, I will share my thought process and progress for this unit.





Somewhat Disconnected


Photo courtesy http://centerforcreativity.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Connected_Educator_Month.png

Photo courtesy http://centerforcreativity.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Connected_Educator_Month.png

It is “Connected Educator” month and I have connected with no one except my students and their parents.

It is the second year of Common Core implementation and I have worked harder than any of my previous 20 plus years of teaching.

But… the work is exciting and quite fulfilling. I finally can answer the question, “Why are we learning this?”

But… as in anything new the journey carries challenges. For me this has been,

  • Demonstrating and expecting students to back up a claim with text evidence.
  • Demonstrating and expecting students to make connections between people, events, and ideas in text.
  • Demonstrating and expecting students to determine central ideas and themes.
  • Helping students to understand this is new and success doesn’t happen on the first try.
  • Helping parents to understand this is new and success doesn’t happen on the first try.

It takes time, it is worth it, we will succeed. I believe.

Transitioning to Common Core

Image courtesy of http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy

I began the school year planning instruction using the Common Core State Standards instead of Tennessee’s. My thinking was that the ability to read and write critically would prepare a student for any type of assessment but more realistically give them strategies for the type of reading needed for authentic literacy situations.

Despite my meager knowledge of the subject at this point, I was amazed at the excitement I felt. Class conversations brought observations that eluded me. I didn’t have to spend an inordinate amount of time hunting for ways to make the learning motivating and meaningful.

But my time was spent on something tedious and that was helping the students to “unlearn” so many bad habits that well meaning instructors had instilled into my learners: a five paragraph response to any prompt, using such mundane phrases as “in my opinion,” and “in conclusion,” introducing the introduction, explaining the assignment rather than responding to it, and summarizing instead of forming a meaningful conclusion.

We rewrote (and when I say we, I mean all of us!) and returned to the same texts, offering new ideas, and sharing revisions. During a recent assignment, a student attached this comment, “Mrs. Shoulders, I now don’t use so much “I believe….” I always state my claim, and I don’t start off with I believe; thanks for teaching me that.”

The small steps are paying off; they (no I mean we) are starting to get it.