Re-thinking Assessment in a Technology Rich Common Core Classroom


In a lot of recent posts, I’ve considered how my instruction will change with implementation of the common core and the introduction of new technologies into my classroom.  Today I want to think about the ways in which assessment will also see complete reformation.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and questions as we all tackle this education revolution together!  As you are updating your curriculum, be sure to check out Secondary Solutions guides, which are common core aligned and FULL of great assessment ideas!

Assessment Changes On the Horizon: 

1. I must stop asking google-able questions. Almost all of my students walk around with the internet in their pockets.  Instead of asking students to memorize information that could be easily answered with a simple search, I need to look at the enduring skills and information that will take them to higher order thinking.  For example, in a test about the poetry of Emily Dickinson, instead of asking about the definition of slant rhyme, I need to ask about the effect of slant rhyme in light of the poem’s content.  Instead of memorizing simple facts, it is more important that students analyze ways in which an author’s word choice shapes the meaning and tone of a piece (Common Core Anchor Standard CCRA.R.4).   This one I think is just good practice no matter what the standards say and I’ve been working on it for the last few years.  Is it as hard for you to give up control of those traditional questions as it is for me?  It sometimes kills me to press delete, even when I know it is for the best.  

2. I must allow for socially rich assessment. Students live in a world rich in social media and real time communication, which is disconnected to the practice of traditional assessment.  In traditional assessment, all students answer the same question, prompt, or problem and then the teacher evaluates answers. Social assessments allow students to evaluate each other, add depth to the answers of their peers and interact with a more varied audience.  Socratic Seminar is a great low-tech, face to face option and collaborize classroom allows for tech savvy asynchronous social assessment.  I’ve seen an improvement in the depth of assessment from both of these practices.  Do you use any other platforms for giving assessment a social, yet rigorous make-over?

3. I must explicitly teach effective communication that is relevant.  Instead of focusing solely on the five-paragraph essay, reflective writing, and research paper, I need to teach students how to effectively communicate through media they currently use and will likely use in the future.  It is important that students understand the impact their words will have through social media, online forums, and messaging.  As we see more colleges and employers checking online profiles, students should know the gravity of their voices in terms of their own futures.  On a more positive note, the power of rhetoric in social media and online discussion is also responsible for incredible growth in grass roots movements.  Students will also need to learn how to present research using new media like infographics.  Limiting formal writing instruction to traditional essay formats robs students of the potential to communicate effectively in the digital era.

4.  I must learn how to collect e-portfolios as a process of reflection and self-assessment.  I’ve traditionally kept paper portfolios for my students.  We fill them with their writing and quarterly reflect on improvements, challenges, and goals.  This staple of my class has served students well and I hate to see it go.  However, I think the writing is on the wall for my precious manilla folders.  It is time for me to find a neat and effective way to transfer this practice to a digital world.  Any suggestions for me?  I’m anxious to hear them!

Be sure to check in weekly for more tips, video tutorials, and teacher thoughts right here at!

Re-thinking assessment SS

Arch Method to Help Students Analyze Informational Texts

As we continue to grow in our common core competencies and take on new informational texts, we need tools to help students read closely and analyze texts that may be outside of their fiction plot structure comfort zone (and ours!).  At a conference many years ago, I picked up a valuable strategy called the arch method, which I believe can do just that.  I learned it from Valerie Stevenson who is a high school English teacher from San Diego, accomplished conference speaker, and incredible fount of knowledge.  Originally, I used it as a way to help AP students answer prose analysis prompts, but with the common core emphasis on informational texts at all levels, I want to show you how it is an appropriate and valuable tool for all of our classes.

The strength of the method is that it can work for junior high and high school students at a variety of skill levels.  For grade level modifications, the teacher simply needs to ensure that the informational text and guiding question are grade level appropriate.  For emerging readers and writers in all grades, the teacher can walk students through the process with several texts over a long period of time before asking students to work independently on this type of task.  For more advanced students, one model or explanation may be enough. Even with my AP class, I like to scaffold this process a few times to make sure that I am getting my desired result by the time they work independently.

In the hope that you won’t see this tool as something too easy or too difficult for your students, I decided to include an example from a junior high curriculum and a 12th grade college prep curriculum.  If you teach AP language and composition, leave me a comment or question about using this strategy in conjunction with prose analysis questions!

Teachers from every level- please feel free to leave questions or comments!  I’d love to hear from you.

 The Strategy (See picture below):

  • For any given informational text, the teacher asks a guided question.  The question must focus on BOTH the main idea and persuasive techniques.  This type of analysis focuses heavily on author’s purpose and style. The questions can vary in complexity for different levels.
  • Students draw an arch in their notes and write the question on that arch.
  • As they read (directed or independently) students look for the SOAPS (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, and situation), as well as persuasive language.  The use of rhetoric (or persuasive language) is recorded under the arch.
  • Then, based on the language, students write the answer to the big picture question above the arch.
  • Once this is complete, teachers can assign a variety of extension assignments like writing an analysis essay, writing a persuasive essay or speech using similar techniques, or participating in a class discussion about the themes or persuasiveness of the piece.
  • After students have gone through this method a few times, they begin to understand close reading and can apply it across the curriculum.  I’ve found that it is very helpful for students who struggle with finding textual evidence to support their gut feelings.

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Analyze Informational Texts 2

Junior High Example:

  •  Junior High students could read and analyze Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech as part of a nonfiction unit or as a companion to novels like Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry or The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963.  This could also be part of a history unit about The Civil Rights Movement or a look at how leaders across time have dealt with discrimination.
  • Here is a link to download an excerpt of the “I Have a Dream” speech.
  • Here is a sample annotation that students could do with teacher scaffolding.
  • Extension activities may include writing a speech about a subject students feel passionate about, writing a speech from the perspective of a character in a novel, or writing a paragraph explaining why the “I Have a Dream” speech was such a powerful moment in American history.
  • In addition to other common core standards, this activity supports the following CCS for grade 6 informational texts: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.6.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and explain how it is conveyed in the text.

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Analyze Informational Texts 3

High School Example:

  • Senior students could read and analyze an excerpt from Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” to go along with their study of Frankenstein, or as a comparison piece across time to the poem “Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women” by Lanyer.   
  • Here is a link to download the excerpt of “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”.
  • Here is a sample annotation that students could do individually or with teacher direction.
  • Extension activities may include writing a vindication of the rights of teenagers, writing a prose analysis essay, or conducting a class debate about the current state of gender equality.
  • In addition to other common core standards, this activity supports the following CCS for grades 11-12 informational texts: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6 Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.

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Analyze Informational Texts 1

What do you think about the arch method? Would you use it? Do you have other go-to strategies for teaching informational texts?

“Attacking the Common Core Standards” Informational Texts – Part Three: Using textual evidence to support inferences within a Non-Fiction Text

In Parts One and Two of this series, we talked about using biographies and historical context to dig into the depths of the Informational Text standards—while avoiding abandoning fictional texts. This article will begin to break down the Informational Texts Standards into practical and accessible “chunks,” giving tips on approaching the standard using Informational Texts.

First, let’s look at the first Informational Text standard for grades 6-12:
• RI.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.7.1. Cite several pieces of textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.8.1. Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RL.9-10.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
• RI.11-12.1. Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain.

So, what do these all have in common? Let’s break it down.
To varying degrees:
• Students should demonstrate the ability to read a nonfiction passage or text, understand and articulate what the text directly as well as indirectly states in order to make an assumption about or respond to prompts from the text.
• Students should be able to identify, extract, and cite text to thoroughly support the student’s response.
• Students should demonstrate the ability to identify a passage or text that leaves unanswered questions, to determine possible reasons for the ambiguity, and to articulate the implications from the uncertainties. (Grades 11-12 only)

In plain English: Students must be able to read a non-fictional text, identifying and citing direct and indirect statements to demonstrate an understanding of the information found within the text.

The concept of inference is one of the most difficult to teach, however even as low as grade 4, the concept must be addressed in some form or another, usually by reading a fictional text and being able to make an assumption or guess based on the evidence or facts from the text combined with their own prior knowledge. However, as we can see in these standards, students must be able to make inferences from an Informational Text as well as a fictional text.

Infer – verb; to conclude by using logic

Forms of the verb include: infer, inferring, inferred

Inference – noun; the process of drawing conclusions based on logic

Both definitions include the words logic, and variations of the words conclude. To conclude is to form an opinion or reach a decision about something. Logic is sensible, rational thought or argument based on facts rather than emotion. In other words, to infer is to form an opinion based on facts.

There are several ways of teaching inference. At the very basic level, students must be able to discern between fact and opinion. I will assume that students are able to understand fact versus opinion by the fourth grade, but if not, start there.
Beyond that, students must be able to make observations. Observations are clues—things that the student sees—either literally (as in a picture) or figuratively (as in a paragraph or story). Observations are factual and can be proven. From observations, students must then use the knowledge they have been given and/or their own personal knowledge to make an inference. Inferences are personal and contain opinion.

When approaching an Informational Text (non-fiction), it can be a common mistake for students to automatically assume that everything they are reading is truthful and factual. After all, it is an informational text, and the author is assumed to be more knowledgeable about a subject than the reader. Students must be warned that not everything one reads that sounds legitimate and logical, actually is. Take articles on the Internet for example. Anyone who has a computer can write what appears to be a scholarly article, post it on the Internet, and call themselves an expert. However, few are actually experts, and the “information” they are providing can contain fallacies, bias, and inaccuracies. Students need to realize that not only do they need to comprehend what the text tells them directly. Take a look at this passage, taken from a Wikipedia article on the Jim Crow Laws:

Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated. These Jim Crow Laws were separate from the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which had previously restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964[1] and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Not only must students support what the text says explicitly (directly): The final Jim Crow Laws were overturned in 1965, but they can also infer what the text alludes to, or states indirectly, i.e. African-Americans were legally discriminated against and held to a lower social status in the United States until 1965.

Students should be able to answer questions about the text using both these explicit as well as implicit statements, providing support for their answers. Here are two examples using general questions one might find attached to an Informational Text document or passage:

  • Question #1: Would this document (passage) be considered persuasive, narrative, descriptive, or expository? Give reasons for your choice.
    • Sample Student Answer: This passage would be considered expository, as it is using factual evidence, including dates and citations to support the document. For example, the passage states that the final Jim Crow laws were overturned in 1965.
  • Question #2: How does the author feel towards the subject of the document? What loaded or biased language do you notice, if any?
    • Sample Student Answer: There is no bias or loaded language evident in this passage. The author simply states facts, and it is up to the reader to make inferences based on those facts. For example, one can assume that African-Americans were legally discriminated against and held to a lower social status in the United States until 1965.

The more students read about or study a subject, the more comfortable they begin to feel making assumptions or inferences about the subject. This takes time and practice, which is why introducing a variety of Informational Texts when teaching a piece of literature is so valuable. The more students learn about the historical and aesthetic background of a text, the more they can appreciate the meaning and significance of the literature itself. (See Informational Texts: Part One and Part Two)

For more help with teaching Inference and Observation, see my FREE handout and activity on TPT.

Attacking the Common Core Standards: Informational Texts-Part One

The Common Core State Standards are quickly becoming a reality for the vast majority of the country.  Many teachers in the U.S. are being faced with the task of aligning teaching materials to the Common Core Standards beginning in the 2012-2013 school year, and while many teachers are just trying to make it through the end of this school year in one piece, most are beginning to feel the pressure to find and/or create practical, usable, and appropriate materials that meet the rigors of these new standards.

This article is the first in a series about how teachers can address the Common Core Standards and to align their materials to the rigors they are being faced with through the implementation of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts.  In this series, I will explore several options for addressing the Common Core Standards to help English Language Arts teachers like you to learn to seamlessly align your teaching materials to the Common Core.

Starting With Informational Texts
As I travel the country at teacher conferences, ELA teachers continually express their concern and stress over the thought of providing access to and teaching Informational Texts within the Common Core Standards.  Many teachers are under the assumption that in order to “make way” for these Informational Texts, it is at the sacrifice of fiction—novels, plays, and poetry.  Understandably, English teachers are appalled at the thought of forsaking fiction for a seemingly “unbalanced” emphasis on non-fiction.  By nature, we love our literature—especially a great novel!

It is imperative that ELA teachers realize that it is NOT the English Language Arts teachers’ sole responsibility to address this aspect of the Common Core Standards.  According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s Myths versus Facts section:

Myth: English teachers will be asked to teach science and social studies reading materials.
Fact: With the Common Core ELA Standards, English teachers will still teach their students literature as well as literary non‐fiction. However, because college and career readiness overwhelmingly focuses on complex texts outside of literature, these standards also ensure students are being prepared to read, write, and research across the curriculum, including in history and science. These goals can be achieved by ensuring that teachers in other disciplines are also focusing on reading and writing to build knowledge within their subject areas.
Myth: The Standards don’t have enough emphasis on fiction/literature.
Fact: The Standards require certain critical content for all students, including: classic myths and stories from around the world, America’s Founding Documents, foundational American literature, and Shakespeare. Appropriately, the remaining crucial decisions about what content should be taught are left to state and local determination. In addition to content coverage, the Standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.


In other words, it is not necessarily up to ONLY the ELA teacher to take on the rigorous task of providing and studying Informational Texts alone.  Savvy and educated Principals and Department Heads should be aware that it is not only up to the ELA teacher to fulfill this task of providing and teaching informational texts.  In fact, it is up to Social Studies/History, Science, and even Math teachers to provide and teach non-fictional literature according to each subject area.  Similarly, all disciplines should be responsible for helping to improve literacy for all students.

Now that some of the pressure and fears may have been assuaged as you realize you should NOT be on your own teaching non-fictional “Informational” texts, let’s look at some of the ways you can address this strand, and still keep the novels, plays, and poetry.  You CAN have your cake, and eat it too.

One very simply, straightforward way (and we will focus on other ways in subsequent articles) to address the Informational Text aspect is to have students study biographies.  If you are going to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird, why not read a biography on Harper Lee?  If you are studying The Crucible, then you should have students learn about Arthur Miller.  But this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as biographies are concerned.  To use our example of To Kill a Mockingbird, why not have students do research on/read a biography of Homer Plessy (Plessy v. Ferguson), Truman Capote (Lee’s neighbor upon whom the character Dill was based), or Emmett Till (killed at age 14 for allegedly flirting with a white woman).  Even if the literature does not have a historical aspect, biographies can still be an option.  For example, in the novel When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, the author mentions Dick Clark.  The protagonist, Miranda, reads A Wrinkle in Time, which provides the opportunity for students to read a biography on A Wrinkle in Time’s author Madeleine L’Engle.

But simply reading the biographies may not be enough to fully address the standards of Informational Texts.  Students should also be prompted to answer questions or complete an activity to analyze the intent and purpose of the biography.  Some generic questions that can help you address these standards are:

  • What is the purpose of this text?  How do you know?
  • What loaded or biased language do you notice?  
  • If there is a good amount of loaded or biased language, what do you think is the author’s purpose? If you cannot find any loaded or biased language, why do you think that is?  
  • How is the information in this article arranged (cause/effect, chronological, order of importance, compare/contrast, etc.)?
  • What details/support can you find that indicates how this person’s upbringing and education has ultimately affected his later life?
  • Briefly summarize the important milestones in this person’s life, including dates.
  • Write an original one-sentence thesis based on the information in this article.
  • Write a list of 10 unknown, technical, or subject-specific words from the article; define each.
  • How does the use of these words affect your reading of the article?

While biographies are a simple way to keep students interested in a novel while still addressing the strand of Informational Text, they are effective, and can be a brief exercise that when added to your curriculum not only help to provide support for a novel, but can reassure you that you are taking steps to integrate those non-fictional standards.  Additionally, by providing another medium (i.e. a video) on the person of interest and having students analyze the text in comparison to the video, you also address an additional aspect of these standards.

If you like the idea of integrating biographies into your curriculum, I have put together a collection of Ten Author Biographies – Popular High School Authors for $7.99, available on TPT.  I also have a smaller, FREE version simply called Author Biographies.

Keep checking back for more ways to integrate Informational Texts in your curriculum and lesson creation!

Thanks for stopping by!