ZIS COETAIL Course 4 Project – Vertical Collaboration on Media Rubrics…And Beyond!

Crossposted from ZIS COETAIL cohort blog.

Shea and I worked on revising media rubrics for our Course 4 project. In my two years at ZIS, we haven’t done much cross-divisional work between English curriculum areas (CA), probably because we are busy, busy, busy people. As such, this has been a very illuminating peek inside the villa, checking out how the English CA is using rubrics to assess and instruct student writing and media creation.

My original media rubrics assessed the media product. For performance assessments, the performance itself often makes up the assessable product, so this made sense. These rubrics were based on the Upper School English CA’s Writing Rubric, which they developed themselves before my arrival. However, later media rubrics focused more on the genre of writing or media that students were asked to create. Interestingly, feedback on the earlier rubrics from students was that they weren’t terribly helpful for reflection or identifying areas for improvement. Because we were learning media creation from consuming and analyzing media models, such as Radiolab for podcasts, I asked students to write our News Writing rubric based on the models they listened to and read, but in a different form than earlier. My Masters action research was on student created rubrics from models and I am a big fan because students determine, and therefore internalize, the expectations for outcomes.

I chose to use a blank 6 Traits rubric because I have used the 6 Traits for years and find the breakdown apt for decoding and planning good writing. Students filled in the blanks based on what they saw as good, bad or mediocre. When we reached the conventions band, we realized together than, as some groups were writing and others were podcasting, we needed dual conventions bands for each media type. This really proved powerful. Recently, I have begun working on a video rubric, as the kids are doing investigative reporting and creating a video report. Through revising my existing rubrics to jive with Shea’s, I had an epiphany that drew also on the earlier experience of student created rubrics: Media is determined by conventions. I never needed that podcast rubric, but rather needed kids to know the conventions of the form. In addition to adherence to conventions, content, style, creativity, and format determine quality. Rubrics should reflect degrees of quality.

As I began to work with Shea, sharing feedback and making revisions, what became obvious is that our 5 column rubrics clashed with the middle school’s four column rubrics. A four column rubric is best because it eliminates the lure of the middle ground and forces a decision on the part of the assessor. I often borrow bits from grade bands as I assess a piece, which is as much a part of how I write rubrics as how I see student work. However,the new four column rubrics wound up stronger, I believe, than their predecessors. You may also note the blank band for video conventions. My students are viewing more media examples this weekend in order to fill in the blanks on Monday. Next, they will create a rubric for investigation and we will simply copy and paste the genre conventions below, merging the elements of quality into one rubric.

As I review these rubrics today, I see room for further improvement: “Sentence Fluency” could be better described (students wrote that, though, so it is meaningful to them). Also, what Sentence Fluency means for video may be so abstract as to demand a new band title. We’ll see. However, this process has led me to understand instruction and assessment of media creation in a new, more purposeful way. We can’t divorce content from form, period, and so our assessment tools should reflect that.

Further, by collaborating with Shea, I have seen in her revision an excellent clarification of media conventions wedded to content – media literacy demands are now embedded directly into her “Sell It” rubric. Also, I really appreciated her addition of an “Overall/Voice” band, which ties together the norms of an advertisement with the voice behind it. I’m not sure how to incorporate this into my current rubrics, but I will be considering a way to do so because it succinctly and explicitly illustrates the purpose for and function of the project’s outcome. Cool!

Working with Shea was great because it made creating better rubrics easier. Working together made my process much quicker and my final products stronger, less cluttered, and based on increased expectations for success. I look forward to more vertical teaming with Shea and my middle school colleagues in the future, not only because it is an enjoyable learning experience, but because it improves my teaching practice and, by extension, student learning.

Twitter Provides a Teachable Moment

My Digital Journalism students have been using Twitter to follow journalists, aggregate content that fits their interests, and promote their blog posts, but today they saw the cooperative power of Twitter first hand. And it was awesome.

We have just begun a nine-week long exploration of “The Feature” as a genre of journalism. The idea is a little artificial, but a convention of journalism, I think, and worth exploring. Students read a bit about what features are and how they are organized differently from straight news and opinion writing. The next step was to read the awesome piece about real life superheros published in GQ by Jon Ronson. Students had a few tasks to perform while they read, tying the initial instructional information about features to the example. Uniformly, they loved the piece, just as my IB students loved The Psychopath Test, also by Ronson, who uses a narrative style that is simply unique and engaging.

We discussed the piece and just had a great conversation. At the end of the lesson, a student wondered aloud if Ronson is writing notes the whole time, while crackheads and dudes in rubber masks engage in brinkmanship over a 3am Seattle street corner, or if he uses a recorder.  I started to speculate, then realized that I follow Ronson on Twitter and that we may be able to use a bit o’ social networking gold to find out. Twenty years ago, when I was in tenth grade, we could have chucked paper letters into the void after an author, never to hear of them again. Today, a boy fired off a Twitter direct message to Ronson and heard back 20 seconds later.

iPhone voice memos. Amazement. Engagement. And every kid in class has an iPad to pull off the same trick.

“Do I thank him, or is that just clutter?”

“Hmm. I don’t know. Do whatever you’d like,” I replied. And so he did, owning all of the experience.

My guesses about the impact are as follows:

  • Jon Ronson got 16 new Twitter followers
  • Students saw new possibilities in Twitter that they never did before
  • Authentic learning happened – students now know how a professional records interviews and thoughts and can already do this themselves
  • Young journalists got a little more stoked on writing

A big win, easily done on a whim, happened this morning. Oh, how these technologies may transform not just what we do and how we do it, but how we think about what we do.

The Power of a Common Functional Vocabulary

I worked closely with a number of colleagues this week to prepare curriculum for a new IB English course, IB Language A: Language and Literature HL in full jargony regalia. During the course of our efforts, a cloud descended as we discussed strategies for grading an internal assessment done early in the students’ first year. I spoke of grading and scoring, another colleague used grading and marking, and our third colleague used all three. As such, great confusion arose as we sought to decode what, exactly, anyone was talking about at any given moment. When I spoke of scoring, I meant using IB rubrics to put IB-dictated numbers on a piece of work with corresponding feedback, but by grading I was referring to the letter grade we would assign to specific scores on the IB scale. Perhaps you’re already confused.

Any debates over the merits of grading and/or externally assessed courses like IB/AP notwithstanding, this time-sucking, frustrating conversation ended in laughter as we figured out how we had linguistically tied ourselves in knots. If we had a pre-defined, shared set of function words referring to specific teaching practices distinct from one another, the conversation would have shed 28 minutes of slowly escalating befuddlement and we could have made a decision and moved on. This is no different for students. In content areas or skill acquisition, teachers should agree on a common set of nonnegotiable, essential vocabulary that allow students to function within the discipline and stick with those. In the composition classroom, we have dozens of ways – generally inexact – of referring to concepts like voice or organization in writing and students must adjust and catch up year by year in the absence of a shared, explicitly taught set of functional vocabulary agreed upon by consensus. In reading and literacy instruction, dozens of like terms have bred, begetting myriad crazy labels for processes simple and complex. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what words we use as long as the definitions are clear, shared, taught, and regularly applied. Of course, many academic contexts or subject areas have common functional vocabulary, so it’s silly to force kids to learn “order of operations” as “fun with figurin'” in fourth grade, only to confuse them in fifth grade when the teacher uses the standard terminology.

The idea is to get past linguistic hurdles, give knowledge and skill steps clear, common labels whenever necessary, and move on to the doing of learning. In our conversation, we lost half an hour to inexact functional language – not Earth shattering, but a solid lesson in the power of a common functional vocabulary!