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Focusing on Mastery (Part II of the Assessment Series)

January 16, 2013

Teacher Musings:

This is the second post in my series on grading.  As promised in the first post today I’m focusing on the third of my grading principles:

  • If I want my assessment to be valuable to students, I must only assess the skills and knowledge that is actually valuable.  This can include “school skills” but I do not want this skills to be the primary skills taught in my classroom.

One of the difficult, but also fantastic, aspects of teaching English Language Arts is that the content standards I am supposed to teach span a huge range of knowledge and skills.  I am supposed to teach students how to identify bias in non-fiction, find symbols in fiction, speak and write persuasively and engage in intellectual discussion.  Along with that I’m responsible for a large portion of my students literacy development.  Not only do ELA standards span this wide range, but they rarely involve skills that develop in chronological order.  It is not as if one can teach students how to “read” or even “identify symbols” and then move onto the next standard.  Instead, all of these skills must be taught simultaneously as students read, comprehend, analyze, write and continue this process.  As one of my colleagues puts it, a lot of the difficultly involved in teaching English is the “all-at-onceness” of it.

This range of standards and “all-at-onceness” also makes it difficult to narrow down and  focus on a few specific skills for all students to master.  The truth is that, if we really want students to “master” something we can’t just cover it.  The Merriem-Webster dictionary defines the verb “master” as

a) to become skilled or proficient in the use of 
b) to gain a thorough understanding of.

If we want students to really become proficient in the use of something, or to gain a thorough understanding of it, we can’t just teach it once, give them an assignment, see if they get it and then move on.  True mastery requires practice, mistakes and opportunities to improve.

This is where the need for a narrow focus comes in.  Mastering something takes time and getting students to truly master the multitude of ELA standards is simply not feasible.  So, do I focus on a few key standards or reject the idea of mastery and simply “cover” the standards by teaching, assigning work, giving a grade and moving on?

As with most aspects of teaching the answer to this conundrum is not found in the extremes.  I would love to only focus on a few core skills, but the reality is that my students are assessed on all the standards at some point in their school careers, be it in the upper grades or on high-stakes tests.  So, my compromise has been to select a small number of key reading and writing skills that I expect all of my students to master, but to also “cover” other standards in my teaching.  My goal in this coverage, however, is exposure, not mastery.  I’m hoping that when I teach those standards some students retain that knowledge in a form that will be helpful to them in the future.  However, the mastery skills are the cornerstone of our work; the mastery of these skills for each student in my class is non-negotiable, no matter what their reading level is when they enter my room or what their previous school experience has been.

So, you may ask, what are these “mastery skills?”  I first show them to my students as course goals:

  1. To use a variety of reading strategies to understand complex texts independently
  2. To identify and explain the effect of writers’ moves (i.e. literary and rhetorical devices) that writers use to make their ideas or arguments clear.
  3. To use writers’ moves to make your ideas and points clear to others in your community!

Now, rightfully, you might think these goals are vague, or at least unwieldy.  However, I have found that starting with these specific, skill-based goals, have helped me focus on some key skills I want students to master such as:

  • Students will be able to (SWBAT) use questioning, prediction and re-reading to effectively comprehend complex texts.
  • SWBAT to identify “writer’s moves” (i.e. literary and rhetorical devices) and explain the impact of these writer’s moves on the reader’s understanding of the main idea/theme
  • SWBAT organize their writing in order to effectively make a point
  • SWBAT to use revision and editing to make their writing more comprehensible to readers

Additionally, I have some other “school-skills” objectives such as:

  • SWBAT plan to execute long-term assignments in a timely manner
  • SWBAT advocate for themselves in order to receive help and support

These objectives help me focus my energy.  For example, I have systems that allow student to turn in work late with a written note and express permission from me in advance of the due date.  However, my understanding of what kind of “soft” skills (like grit and perseverance) are most important is constantly evolving.  Any suggestions or reading or research in this area is very much welcome – leave a comment if you have thoughts about this!!

I have not listed every single one of my objectives here.  Instead, I’m trying to show how choosing a few objectives helps to focus both my teaching and my assessment system.    In my next post I will share the mechanics of my portfolio and benchmark assessment system and how it helped make “grading” a more effective learning tool.

Check out the rest of the Assessment Series!

Part I: Grading Principles

Part III: A System that Works


Yummy Stuff:

Recently we learned that my husband and son are not allergic to cashews!  Hooray!  As a celebration I’m looking forward to making this Veg News Vegan Mac n’ Cheese recipe soon, so I thought I would share it here.  It sounds delicious so I thought I would share it here – just click the picture for the link!


From → Assessment, Dinner

  1. I want to try the vegan mac also!

    • Tammy,
      We tried it and it was AMAZING! Seriously, the whole time I was making the sauce I was thinking “how can this possibly work?” But it does – trust me! I’m to going to try just making the cheese sauce for nachos next weekend for when we watch the Super Bowl.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A System that Works (Part III of the Assessment Series) « English Teachin' Vegan
  2. “Grading” Principles (Part I of the Assesment Series) | English Teachin' Vegan

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