Assessment Dilemmas

Some aspects of professional life are obvious. For instance, most teachers prefer to read essays as they are submitted, particularly if they are being written in class as part of a district assessment. Most of the teachers I know do not embrace inactivity; they want to do something.  They want to work with students to help them develop their ideas, talk through strategies.  That’s not a secret. On the other hand, there are practical matters at work in this scenario. Language arts teachers often live by this rule because of the sheer number of pieces of writing they must read and respond to.

All 82 of my language arts students wrote in-class essays yesterday as part of a district-mandated assessment. Unlike PARCC, opting out is not an option. If I stayed faithful to that cardinal rule of language arts teachers and graded each essay as it was submitted, I would have made a serious dent in my weekend workload. However, I didn’t grade a single essay.

Watching my students write inspired me want to write. But I wasn’t inspired to write glorious fictional prose, the kind that moves readers emotionally. Instead, I was inspired to write about what my students must endure in response to today’s comprehensive and ubiquitous assessment culture. I was also moved because I don’t believe many outside of education – spouses not included – understand exactly what occurs in a language arts classroom, or any other classroom for that matter. Today’s educational environment is very different from the schoolrooms of years past, when many of my contemporaries sat in these same student desks.

When I tell people I’ve just met I’m an eighth grade language arts teacher, the typical response is, “Bless you. I could never do that.” Yet, the teaching profession – or vocation, depending how you feel about it – is often misunderstood. This reaction, and other similar reactions, I believe, are born from a fear of teens and tweens. Teens and tweens are actually some of the most authentic and interesting people to work with. Observing them is often the best part of my day. And I get to observe them in language arts on many more levels than most other teachers. My observations are made during whole-class discussions, individual reading and writing conferences, reading what they’ve written, peeking at them while they read, listening to their conversations, and watching their interactions during group projects. A language arts classroom is sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, just with tamer subjects.

The essay my students wrote yesterday is a complicated matter.  After reading and annotating Larry Fondation’s short story Deportation at Breakfast and Sherman Alexie’s poem The Limited, students were invited to write an essay comparing how each author develops their perspective and what effect each text is intended to have on the reader. Students were required to use evidence from both texts to help develop their responses. Just an essay, right?

If you break this task into its more manageable, teachable pieces, it’s quite comprehensive; some would even go so far as to call it “a load.” And it all takes place over 82 minutes, the time frame of a two-class period language arts block.  Unfortunately, only one of my language arts blocks occurs during back-to-back periods, so the other two blocks, one of which I share with another teacher, are broken up by multiple class periods. Some might look upon this favorably – an advantageous break, during which students could reflect on both stories and the similarities or differences they share. There’s only one problem. These students must attend other classes during those non-language arts periods, during which they will engage in other work and probably not have the time to reflect on what they are required to finish during their designated second half of the language arts block. That’s the reality. Many of these students, in all likelihood, had to use a portion of their second period to reacquaint themselves with what they had written, wasting precious writing time.

While comparing and contrasting the poem to the short story, students had to determine to what extent each author intentionally used a fairly substantial number of literary elements similarly or differently as they revealed their perspective on taking a stand.  On first glance, poems and short stories use word choice differently. It could be argued that a poem places more emphasis on word choice, particularly figurative language, since poems often treat words more economically.

Students were also encouraged, as I mentioned earlier, to annotate, or think through each text in the margins. Yet many see annotation (heavy sigh, exaggerated shoulder slump) as a punitive measure, rather than a beneficial strategy to make sense of their thoughts as they read. To achieve success, students must also solidly grasp the many of the literary elements an author might intentionally use (imagery, figurative language, tone, characterization, narrative point-of-view, theme (and the issues and topics that are used to construct it), conflict, setting, etc.) that contribute to perspective. Again, the moving parts are many.

All of this analysis must be coherently written in an essay. In order for success to occur, students must have a solid grasp of the role organizational structure and sentence variety play in conveying their thoughts in a cohesive manner; they must also be familiar with how to thoughtfully introduce their position while stating a claim and providing context for the reader. After making the introduction, the challenge becomes compartmentalizing evidence into supporting paragraphs that begin with a topic sentence, provide the context of the evidence about to be used, and explain, thoroughly, how that evidence supports their claim. The conclusion, possibly the scariest of all essay goblins, lays in wait. Should I just restate my introduction? Thinks each writer. Or, should I attempt to present something thoughtful about the topic the reader can ponder over the course of the next many days? The latter, generally, loses because writers are so tired by this point as the clock continues to tick, stomachs begin to growl, and grey matter begins to throb.

If you are not familiar, Deportation at Breakfast is told from the first-person perspective of a man looking for breakfast. He comes upon Javier’s diner, finds it clean and attractive, and is enticed by the reasonable prices. After sitting at the counter, taking his first sips of coffee, ordering his breakfast, and scanning the newspaper, the “authorities” enter the restaurant and escort Javier out. He does not resist.  It’s the last we hear of Javier. Seconds later, the protagonist wonders what will become of his breakfast (and the breakfasts of other customers). Javier was the lone employee. Will the food burn? Our protagonist is faced with a challenge.

Rather than pay any attention to Javier’s fate, the protagonist answers the call, hops the counter, and continues Javier’s work.  Other customers enter, so he takes care of them.  The story soon ends with the protagonist thinking…

Maybe I’d take out a help-wanted ad in the paper tomorrow. I had never been in the restaurant business. There was no way I could run this place alone.

Javier is not even a distant memory. He’s completely forgotten by our protagonist (and the remaining customers) after an episode that many of us would have talked about for days on end.

Sadly, most of my students felt the story was about stepping in when called to duty.  After all…someone had to make breakfast, right?


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Instructions for the End of the World by Jamie Kain

Instructions for the End of the WorldNicole’s father, a retired military officer and end-of-the-world prepper , moves his family to a home he inherited in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  Nicole’s mother leaves after she sees the dilapidated condition of the home. When her father leaves to find her mother, Nicole is left to watch her obstinate 14-year-old sister Izzy, who doesn’t want to be there any more than her mother did, although there’s not much she can do about it.  The house has no phone, their cell phones don’t receive a signal, and both cars were taken by both parents.  Nicole, who takes after her father more than anyone else, is forced to contemplate her father’s hyper focus on prepping, her parents’ doomed marriage, her relationship with Izzy, and her feelings for the Wolf – short for Wolfgang – a boy who lives in an adjacent community. Complicating matters, forest fires threaten the area.

All of the signs of young adult literature reside in Jamie Kain’s novel. Parents leave children to figure things out on their own, protagonists experience opposing feelings about their place in the world, and they also confront feelings they must navigate for members of the opposite sex.  It’s awkward, but so it adolescence.

Kain’s novel is told from multiple perspectives – Nicole, Izzy, Wolf, and occasionally Laurel, a girl who lives in Wolf’s same community.  All four perspectives provide very different observations and go along way to characterize the narrators.  Nicole is her father’s daughter; he taught her how to shoot, hunt, and survive.  Izzy is more like her mother. Wolf is quite the independent sort, having been left to live in the community (more like a commune) while his mother leads a fairly transient life, travelling, abusing substances, and gallivanting from place to place. Wolf wants no part of this life, so he often reads older than his years. Laurel is more like a sister to Wolf, although she gives off a jealous vibe when Nicole is present; she wants Annika’s (Wolf’s mother) attention more than Wolf. The tension between the sisters, as well as Wolf and Laurel, presents readers with some interesting alternative perspectives of similar experiences, which is something young adult literature should do.  Nicole and Izzy see things very differently, even though they both share the same parents, upbringing, and DNA.

Instructions for the End of the World was enjoyable, but I’m not sure I would recommend it over many of the other books I’ve read lately. Nicole’s internal conflict is compelling, and the mess she and Izzy must overcome is interesting, but the story lacks something I can’t quite put my finger on.  Maybe it’s Wolf’s above-it-all, overly-mature approach to things. While he’s only 17, he comes off more as a middle-aged philosopher. The voice and characterization are not quite right for a teen, although his life experiences  have forced him to grow up awfully fast.

If I were asked to rate this book, I would give it a solid three stars out of five. The ending gave me closure, but it didn’t satisfy all of the questions I had leading up to it.

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Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

Orbiting JupiterWhen Joseph, 14, comes to live with Jack’s family as a foster child after spending time in a juvenile corrections facility, all he can think about is finding his daughter Jupiter. But Jupiter’s grandparents want nothing to do with Joseph, and Jupiter has been given up for adoption.  Jack isn’t sure how to respond to Joseph, so he follows his parents’ lead.  However, when Joseph’s biological father bursts onto the scene and looks to leverage the situation in his financial favor, Joseph, Jack, and his parents become even more sure about what they must do.

Gary D. Schmidt is a wonderful storyteller.  Having read Okay for Now, Trouble, and What Came from the Stars, Orbiting Jupiter was an easy book to buy.  And once I started reading, I put everything else off.  My students knew how good the book was because I decided to read with them during reader’s workshop.  I appreciate their understanding.🙂

Schmidt tackles many issues in this new young adult novel – family, foster children, juvenile detention, young love, and young parenthood.  All are approached in a respectful, honest way.

Yes, it might be hard for a 14-year-old eighth grader to understand Joseph’s predicament, but I would rather have that 14-year-old and all of his peers read about it before they find themselves in a position to experience it.  That’s the power of reading.

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Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Simon vs. the Homosapian AgendaSimon, a high school junior, is gay, but he is leery to come out because of the backlash he’s certain will follow. However, when a classmate comes upon Simon’s open e-mail in the school library, his secret is out, and the classmate decides to use blackmail for his own gain. Simon must decide whether he wants to control his own communication or allow someone else to take control for him.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I opened Simon Vs. The Homosapiens Agenda. I believe that young adult literature – or any literature for that matter – is a useful tool to better understand ourselves and the world around us.  And I have no doubt that some of my middle school students are struggling with their sexuality and sexual identity. This book confronts Simon’s sexuality in what I can only imagine is a very realistic manner. He struggles with how he’ll come out to his family, how he’ll tell his friends, and how the backlash from such a decision, particularly in suburban Atlanta, will affect everyone going forward.

While he mulls the repercussions of any pronouncement, Simon has his first contact with another gay, albeit anonymous, student over e-mail.  Simon’s e-mails allow him to work through his many mixed feelings while his anonymous e-mail correspondent finds himself in the same boat.

The first 60% of this book was much too slow. Yes, character development was critical, but sometimes too much is too much. However, the final 40% was worth the wait.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

harper-lee-go-set-a-watchman-cover-leadAfter many years, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird this spring with my eighth graders. At first, I thought the students were going to sacrifice me, yet as the story unfolded, many proclaimed it one of their favorite books of the year. At the same time, word of Go Set the Watchman hit the news, so I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon.  Then, just days before its release, word of Atticus metamorphosis into a segregationist became a hot topic on social media. Parents who had named their sons Atticus second guessing that decision.

Harper Lee’s Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is a pillar of strength, a moral compass, a voice of reason, the type of person many aspire to after reading. As I reread the book with my students, I began to ask myself what Atticus would do, given some of the parenting pitfalls I would soon approach with three teenage boys. At 48, with no idols to speak of, Atticus had secretly become someone I looked to for guidance. Simply put, I felt like wearing a What Would Atticus Do? wristband was not entirely out of the question.

I entered Go Set the Watchman with a somewhat jaded outlook. Word of Atticus’s transformation, I feared, would spoil my reading experience.  After all, aren’t we more likely to become more liberal, not less, as we age? This had always been my observation. Maybe I’m floating in a sea of liberals.

The story begins with Scout, now referred to in adulthood by her given name, Jean Louise, returning to Maycomb for a two-week visit.  Atticus has reached his 70’s and suffers terribly from rheumatoid arthritis. Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s older sister, has moved in with him. Hank, a childhood friend of Jem’s, is Atticus’s law partner. Hank is quite smitten with Jean Louise and intends to marry her. Jean Louise is not so sure about marriage. She has seen quite a different life in New York, and the prospect of marrying, only to grow tired of her spouse, scares her.  Hank’s pursuit of Jean Louise could have been the main conflict, yet Harper Lee presented readers with something we had no idea was coming.

As we know from To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus was the only lawyer in town who would give Jim, accused of raping Mayella Ewell, his best legal effort.  Based on his actions, one would think Atticus progressive for his time. However, Go Set the Watchman, presents a more thorough perspective of Atticus’s beliefs.  As Jean Louise begins to see Atticus for what she believes he is and the idol she once worshipped begins to tarnish, she turns to Uncle Jack, now retired from medicine and living in Maycomb. During one of their discussions, Uncle Jack terms Atticus a Jeffersonian Democrat because he took a narrow view of how the federal government should brandish its power.

Blacks in Maycomb, empowered by the NAACP, have begun to assert themselves.  Many of Maycomb’s white citizens don’t quite know what to do, so a town council is formed.  When Jean Louise sneaks into the courthouse to see what the town council is all about, she can’t believe what she hears the members and guest speaker saying about blacks. Furthermore, she goes into a state of shock when she sees Hank and Atticus sitting silently and listening to the speaker’s disparaging remarks. Jean Louise is floored by Atticus’s lack of response to statements with which she believes he disagrees. With her whole world turned upside down (sorry for the cliche!) she seeks answers, the complexity of which frustrate her. Gone are the simple tenets to living she learned on Atticus’s knee as a young girl. The world has become much more complicated, and her first instinct is to run.

Unlike so many others, I was not disappointed by the book.  Lee’s story presents readers with tough questions about race, allowing other perspectives, and surrounding ourselves with others just like us.  Although some of the flashbacks to Jean Louise’s youth are lifted directly from To Kill a Mockingbird, these respites from the story help bridge the two-time periods.  Sadly, though, America still struggles with the issues of 1950’s Maycomb.  Poll taxes, bigotry, and prejudice still stain the fibers of our modern society.

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Emmy and Oliver by Robin Benway

Emmy and OliverTwo name novels are in vogue.  Eleanor and Park, Zac and Mia, Althea and Oliver. After a quick Internet search, I’m not the only YA book blogger who has noticed the trend.  I loved Eleanor and Park, but I couldn’t get past the first part of Zac and Mia. When Emmy and Oliver caught my attention, I was a bit skeptical.  Was Robin Benway attempting to ride the wave of two-name young adult novels for the sake of higher sales. Who knows. What I do know is that Benway has written a book that stands on its own merits.

Emmy and Oliver are elementary school friends and next door neighbors who are separated for nearly a decade after Oliver’s father, worried over his ex-wife’s threat to gain full custody, kidnaps Oliver during one of his custody weekends. Oliver’s kidnapping affects everyone involved. Emmy’s parents become much more protective and overbearing.  When Oliver returns during their senior year of high school, no one is quite sure how to respond. The adults request that Oliver be given space to reacquaint himself with his family. Emmy wonders whether her parents will lighten up on curfew and the other overprotective measures put in place after Oliver’s disappearance. Most importantly, Emmy struggles to recapture the second-grade friendship she shared with Oliver.

Although Emmy and Oliver is a story about timeless friendship, it also provoked many thoughts about overprotective, helicopter parents who prevent their children from experiencing and responding to the ups and downs of life. Emmy’s parents are off-the-charts. She’s a senior in high school, yet she has a sundown curfew during the summer. Their overprotective nature pushes Emmy to live under a veil of secrecy. She lies about her surfing; she applies to college while they feel she should attend community college and live at home; and she attends parties while telling her parents she’s sleeping over at her friend Caro’s (Caroline) house.  Other subplots add substance to the story.  Emmy and Caro’s friend, Drew, a soccer star, is gay and must deal with the dilemma of same-sex dating in high school.

However, the most compelling aspect of the story is Oliver’s reaction to returning home after ten years away.  At one point in the book, he says, ” Coming home is like being kidnapped all over again.” When his father kidnapped him, Oliver had to learn the ways of a new life, including a new name.  When he returned home as a teenager, everyone assumed to would re-acclimate after a short time. It wasn’t that simple. His mother had remarried and given birth to twin daughters, his friends were different people, and he was an unwilling celebrity. He needed his friends, but since they were told to give him space, he felt isolated.

I found Emmy and Oliver fulfilling and compelling, and I look forward to recommending it to my eighth graders who enjoy teen romance with a twist.


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Split by Swati Avasthi

SplitTo what extent can we run from our past without fearing our future?  Jace, a high school junior, winds up on his older brother’s doorstep after being kicked out of the house by his abusive father. While his father’s abuse was the impetus behind his escape, Jace is worried that he will eventually turn into his father because he looks like him and begins to act like him. Prior to running away, Jace began to abuse his girlfriend, a second strike that makes him weary of his future.

Split makes for a fulfilling reading experience because the story is loaded with contrasts. Jace thought his older brother would welcome him with open arms, yet his older brother has run from the same fate – he does not want to turn into his father. At the same time, both share concern for their mother’s welfare.  No matter how many times her husband beats her, Jace’s mother stays, something he does not understand.  However, when Jace and his brother make plans to save their mother, they are surprised by what they encounter.

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