Why Write Now

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Reflections of Professional Development

There is a vast need for technology staff development for teachers at all levels. We have been partcipating in the TXBluebonnet Writing Project this summer and learning how to create blogs, wikis, and podcasts. Today's students will need these skills in their future education, in their future workplaces, and our global economy will depend on the technological skills of these students. What are your thoughts? What are your needs? What are your ideas about the methods to best provide technological staff development and support for educators?

Reflections on Professional Development

There is a critical need for technology training for classroom teachers so that today's students can be prepared for what they will face in the near future.  Their future education depends on this knowledge, the business world will depend on their ability to use these skills, and our global economy will be affected by the knowledge and skill level of these students.

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Catherine and family
at the zoo.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Portfolio Assessment (Literature Review)

This is the research I have done in response to my burning question.

“Will Portfolio Assessment Motivate Students and Demonstrate Growth in Writing Skills?”


The need for writing improvement in the schools dates back to 1874 when Harvard University started to include a written exam for entrance requirements. This was a direct result of their concern with upper classmen’s writing abilities. In 1975 Newsweek published their article “Why Johnny Can’t Write” which led America to believe there was yet another crisis in education. The conception of the National Writing Project was an off spring of this controversy that ensued between educators and politicians. In the National Writing Project’s book selection, Because Writing Matters,(2003) it is stated that writing is central to not only academic success but also to our successful participation in our workplaces and to our global economy. This belief has been the motivation behind developing research that has been put together to highlight the most effective writing programs in the country. The general thought among educators and politicians today is that writing skills are important, and that students must learn how to effectively communicate their thinking through the written word (Nagin, 2003). As a teacher, I too am concerned with the improvement of writing in our schools today. Our educational system needs to perhaps evaluate the traditional practices of teaching writing. There might be cause to examine and realign our writing practices with the expectations of today’s world with regard to what our students will be called upon to do once leaving the educational system. As a result of this, my inquiry encompasses not only the question of portfolio assessment and its affect on student motivation, but also its reliability as an evaluative tool to improve writing skills in today’s classrooms.

Literature Review
The philosophy of the contributors to Because Writing Matters,(2003) believe that no single test can demonstrate the range of a student’s abilities or his/her development as a writer. What is needed are multiple strategies for learning to write that address both the process and end product (Nagin, 2003). Shaklee, Barbour, Ambrose, and Hansford in Designing and Using Portfolios, make reference to Grant Wiggins’ book Assessing Student
Performance (1993) in which he describes assessment as a “comprehensive, multifaceted analysis of performance that must be judgment based and personal.” (p.13) Wiggins professes that assessment must be a collaborative effort between student and teacher with the end goal being improvement of the writing. The NAEYC agrees with this viewpoint
stating the assessment should be used only for the benefit of the student as a means to
implement learning that is developmentally appropriate, but cautions not to allow it to lead to discrimination of individual students or manifest inaccuracies in evaluation (Shaklee, Barbour, Ambrose, Hansford,1997).
The characteristics of an authentic assessment system have been described by many organizations and researchers ( e.g., Genishi, 1992; Paulson and Paulson, 1990; Perrone, 1991; Bredekamp, 1987; Wiggins, 1993). Assuming that a teacher believes in the constructivist approach to learning, these can provide a platform upon which educators can build their own assessment tools in their respective classrooms. In short, they are as follows: (1) Assessment should be authentic and valid. (2) It should encompass the whole child. (3) It should involve repeated observations of various patterns of behavior. (4) It should be continuous over time and use a variety of methods for gathering evidence of student performance. (5) It should provide a means for systematic feedback to be used in the improvement of instruction and student performance. (6) And finally authentic assessment should provide an opportunity for joint conversations and explanations between students and teachers, teachers and parents, and students and parents (Shaklee, Barbour, Ambrose, Hansford, 1997).

What is Portfolio Assessment?

Dr. Bonnie Jones, an education program specialist in the Research to Practice Division of the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education, and formerly an educator at the upper elementary and middle school levels, first became interested in portfolio assessment after experiences with them in inclusive classrooms as a teacher. She defines portfolio assessment as the “systematic and selective collection of

student work that shows mastery or growth in a particular subject area over a period of
time. Authentic tasks (real life tasks) such as writing a letter are the foundation tasks that are
intended to grow out of instruction that is based on real life problems” (Walther-Thomas, 2001). Although admittedly she recognizes that portfolios have been used most often by general education teachers, she touts their benefits in an inclusive classroom where
students’ individual needs may be met without labeling them. According to Dr. Jones, portfolio assessment allows teachers to “capture learning over time and in a variety of settings. They are flexible enough to be used effectively with a wide range of student abilities and a great way to engage students in the assessment of their own progress” (Walther-Thomas, 2001). For motivational purposes, one might argue that this gives the student voice in his/her own assessment, allowing them choice in portfolio content and the opportunity to reflect on their own learning. Although Dr. Jones addresses the benefits of portfolio assessment she also is quite honest in pointing out some of the potential problems with using this strategy. The designing and implementation of portfolios is very complex. Portfolios require a lot of time and commitment from both the teacher and the student. The question of where these folders or notebooks might be housed could be an issue. A teacher must remember that the activities must lead not only to meaningful products for assessment designed to meet student interests, but also be aligned with grade level performance standards. Dr. Jones views portfolios as informal assessment measures, not meant to replace standardized testing. Dr. Jay Simmons of the University of New Hamshire after examining samples of writing from portfolios and samples from large-scale writing assessments suggests that there is value in using portfolios in conjunction with timed, extemporaneous writing tests. He found portfolios provided a more complete and accurate portrait of student writing growth (Jongsma, 1989). This data could eventually neutralize the disagreements among parents, teachers, administrators, and the public on whether traditional evaluations are better than the more complex method of portfolio assessment or not. Portfolios can become an important part of parent conferencing illustrating the grade level standards, how they are taught, and how they are measured. They can be a useful and non threatening method of evaluation in our diverse classrooms of today.
Porter and Cleland, two public school teachers, in their book The Portfolio as a Learning Strategy, (1995) contrast the differences between traditional and authentic assessment. In the course of a three year study, they researched and implemented the use of writing portfolios in their respective classrooms. After the first year they reviewed their students’ portfolios and by analyzing them found that the students through reflection were able to better focus on process and self evaluation of their own writing. After study and continued use of the portfolios in their classrooms, they surmised that reflection allowed their students to examine their own learning process, to take responsibility for their own learning, to see gaps in their learning, to identify strategies that support their learning, to celebrate risk taking and inquiry and to set goals for future experiences (Porter, Cleland, 1995). The portfolio assessment allowed for individual growth in not only knowledge but in skills and served as a benchmark for later experiences and investigations. One important part of this study was that both of these teachers continued to allow their constructivist beliefs in how children learn to reflect through their individual classroom instruction and assessment instruments.
Other benefits of using portfolios in the classroom found through observations of classrooms using this collaborative effort to assess writing were the stimulation of passive learners into becoming active learners (Knipper, Duggan, 2006). Giving a voice to the student with regard to his/her growth and learning directly involves him/her in the day to day process. It allows for creativity, for the engagement of the students to help set up individual criteria for instruction and assessment. Real life, meaningful issues make student writing authentic and purposeful. The portfolio provides for fluidity as it allows the student and teacher to take out and replace pieces. Not every draft has to be perfect, and periodically one can be revisited for revision and rewrite. It becomes a vehicle to publication, for use in parent conferences, and establishes a writing history of the student when used for evaluation (Graves, 2004). With the need for technology based learning, e-portfolios have been used more in graduate programs than in elementary, middle, and secondary classrooms. However, in some middle school classrooms with hard to reach students the use of “zines” as well as web pages created with a unit of study have helped to motivate

the student writers, because they are given the opportunity to express their creativity in a
new and authentic format. The use of technology as part of the portfolio evaluation process also brings along some drawbacks. Training on equipment and creating an understanding
of how information is gathered is critical and probably best addressed early on. Accessing information and using or applying the information found are two different things and a distinction between the two must be made. E-portfolios can create a massive amount of material to evaluate, time for evaluation becomes a critical matter, and the issue of privacy and security must be addressed (Goldsby and Fazal, 2000).

What should portfolios look like?

There seem to be two schools of thought on this question. Some researchers say that a portfolio should be a folder in which a predesigned number and type of writing genre are placed for student, teacher, and parent(s) to examine. Some educators have used manilla folders, some pocket folders, some notebooks, and some have left the “container” issue up to the individual students. Others actually incorporate the use of two portfolios in the classroom. One is the master portfolio which is the working folder or notebook. The other is the product portfolio within which the student or the teacher and student collaboratively have decided which writings become “showcase” pieces. Many have found that the more ownership the student has in designing this assessment portfolio the more successful the publishing of polished writing becomes. In an interview of Roger Farr, Director of the Center of Reading and Language Studies at Indiana University, conducted by Kathleen Stumpf Jongsma of Northside Schools in San Antonio, Texas, Dr. Farr states that portfolios are most effective if they include both reading and writing activities. Some teachers ask students to add something they have written and something they have read to the portfolio each week. Whatever the guidelines, he cautions that they must be established at the beginning of the school year. He also suggests that portfolio discussions be scheduled throughout the year (Jongsma, 1989). In Stratham, New Hampshire, a portfolio system is used that combines reading and writing thus providing a whole picture of

a student as reader and writer. They are actually called “literary folders” (Jongsma, 1989).

How do teachers connect portfolio “reflective” assessment to the real world of required grades on a report card?

In Response and Analysis by Rober Probst, he writes: “The problem is not simply that the grade doesn’t inform; rather, it misinforms and deceives. It imitates the precision of mathematics, though it is at best only impression and judgment. In so doing it conceals information that might be useful to students and parents, and trains them to accept an empty symbol as surrogate” (Hewitt, 1995). How and to what extent can portfolio assessment and the grade on a report card be linked together. This is a frustration for teachers who are faced with the decisions to use or not to use an authentic evaluation process. There is no cut and dried answer. The teacher, the school’s policies, the district and state guidelines are all involved. With the assumption that portfolio assessment cannot stand alone and must be used in conjunction with the writing process and with standardized writing assessments, several possible avenues to solving this problem might be considered. As part of the assessment process, whether using a working notebook and/or a product portfolio, students must meet certain criteria. They must be responsible for the organization of the folder. Since writing is a recursive process, evaluation need not lie solely on a finished product. In the encouragement of students to take a more active role in their learning, reflective pieces that share their thoughts on what is good in their writing, what they feel comfortable with, what they think they can improve on are all part of the evaluation. By emphasizing process teachers can praise, encourage, and support the student writers. Maja Wilson in her book, (Rethinking Writing Rubrics as Assessment,(2006) explores the grading system of Linda Cristensen, author of Writing, Reading and Rising Up. She assigns points for a first draft of a piece, for the revision of a piece and so on. She sets the genre criteria at the beginning of the semester and successful completion of these required pieces receives a certain number of points. Completion of daily work, class participation, and completion of homework all are awarded points. She does take the liberty from time to

time of returning work that needs more revision or polish. Wilson has use this system as
the framework for her own classroom. Instead of only awarding points for each step of the process, she expects her students to reflect on their own participation and growth by writing about the writing and revisions they have done, places they have become stuck, how they have become “unstuck”, and identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Knipper and Duggan (2006) suggest the use of carefully contrived rubrics and checklists. They profess rubrics can help teachers by giving them a better sense of qualitative differences in students’ writing. A well constructed rubric can be used as a tool by the student for self monitoring and assessment. A rubric can become a scoring guide to differentiate between superior writing and average and below average writing for the teacher. The rubric “makes public the key criteria that students use in developing, revising and judging their own work” (Huba and Freed, 2000). To be effective the rubric must be referred to consistently in class.
Creating checklists are also advocated by Knipper and Duggan (2006). The use of a checklist is of benefit to the student in that it provides goals for individual writing as well as characteristics of what the finished product should look like. According to Hodgson and Bohning a checklist can encourage a writer to be more self directed in the mastery of content learning. In their opinion good writing does not just happen, but it can be directed through the use of checklists (Knipper and Duggan, 2006). These checklists can become starting places for writing conferences with the teacher as well as with peers.
If writing instruction is to improve, several things may need to be brought to the forefront as far as instruction is concerned. Donald Graves (2004) states that as a profession we underestimate what children can do. As he continues to observe in classrooms he has concluded that the teacher makes a greater difference than the methodology. He believes strongly in the writing process and is grateful to teachers like Lucy Calkins who developed the mini lesson concept. In thinking about renowned teachers such as Calkins and Nancy Atwell, he recognizes what excellent teachers do. “They are highly literate. They are intensely interested in their students. Their students have a primary
place in the classroom. They instill a sense of responsibility in their students. They have high expectations. They teach by showing.”


Informal strategies such as interest inventories and checklists were explored in the 1960s and the early1970s but quickly lost their appeal. As we move further into the 21st century, it seems teachers are more determined to use authentic assessment as education moves more fully into performance based assessment. The components to authentic assessment must: assist in learning; encourage good instruction; relate to curriculum outcomes; foster higher order learning; follow developmental perspective; use testing sparingly; support time efficiency; report meaningful information; promote partnering of parents, educators, and students; foster student metacognition and reflection; and be individualized. If portfolios are chosen as a means of assessment they must include student selected pieces, student reflections on entries, a clearly identified purpose, formative and summative samples, and growth samples (Cole, Ryan and Kick, 1995). From a collection of student work a picture of the learner emerges that is far more powerful than that of a numerical grade on a report card. A teacher who wants to discuss a students comprehensive progress and growth needs a portfolio (Hewitt, 1995). As in all academic endeavors, the success of any program appears to rest in the hands of the educator.


The Burning Question

The following is the critical incident which motivated my participation in the Tx Bluebonnet Writing Project and which drove my research for the summer.

The Burning Question

As the clock hands crept toward the final bell of the day, papers began to shuffle in preparation for their placement in blue clothed notebooks.
“All right class, before the bell rings here is your next writing assignment.”
The silent protest of the class could be felt through out the room, but not one sound was heard as the the teacher continued with instructions.
“Your assignment is to write a story--be creative, be detailed, and it is due on Monday.”
An inaudible moan visible only in the dissenting body language of the seventh grade students sent a message of protest to the stoic teacher. She seemed not to notice as she turned her back, impassively stating her departing words for the day, “Class dismissed.”
With those final words the 7th period dismissal bell rang. The class, in a hurry to escape the confounds of the classroom and school building, hastily put away papers, closed notebooks, and rushed out into the crowded halls heading toward the exit doors. I followed the herd of 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. Once on the bus, I sat alone in a seat close to the driver and stared out the window. The writing assignment from my English class was an unwelcome surprise. A wave of panic slowly erupted from my insides creating a warm, moist, uncomfortable feeling on the my skin’s surface which ended up in a tightly drawn knot at the center of my stomach. I had never written a story in my life. Making up a story about something that would be interesting enough for someone to read was beyond my reach. Besides, no one had ever expected me to write a story or even taught me how to do one. Where would I come up with an idea? Everything I had written to date in this class had been returned with numerous unexplained red ink marks and a C+ or B- at the top. A sudden surge of nausea began to swell within me as the bus lurked into reverse and pulled away from the bus stall.
I vividly remember that day in 1963 and wonder if the emotions of a an insecure, vulnerable, and apprehensive seventh grade girl are much like the feelings of some of my own students when an assignment is given in my classroom today. A male student I had this year comes quickly to mind. For the last three years he has failed, attended summer school, and then has been passed on to the next grade. There are a number of issues that have played a part in creating this situation, but in the classroom he basically has not completed any work and most of the time it has not even been started, as if he were just ignoring the entire assignment. Due to this lack of involvement his skills levels are severely delayed especially in the area of writing. As his sixth grade teacher, I quickly assessed he was a capable young man due to his insightful comments during classroom discussions. At mid year he was subjected to a battery of tests to rule out learning disabilities and according to district guidelines he did not qualify for any special help. Our year was a struggle. I was frustrated because I knew there was a bright kid inside him somewhere but I failed to bring him out. I did observe some minute changes. They were not profound changes but little glimpses of stirrings within his soul. One writing assignment we completed was an opinion paper. We did background work to understand opinions, how they could be effectively voiced, what commands an audience to listen to and respect an opinion different from their own, and studied editorials in the newspaper. Each student chose their topic of passion, wrote an opinion statement along with three brief supporting statements for it on a large piece of colored butcher paper and then the class had the opportunity to read the statement and respond to it thus giving the writer some feedback to consider such as, “ I agree, but have you considered...” or, “I do not agree because...” before beginning their draft. This particular student loved offering comments to his classmates and after two weeks finally wrote and posted his own opinion statement. His classmates were well into the assignment, revising, editing, and publishing. It was difficult to get them to stop and respond to him but two or three did. He went on to write a six sentence paragraph voicing his disagreement with software being used to manage the noise levels of ipods belonging to young people. There was not much substance to, it but it was the most he had written to date. The final writing assignment of the year was our country research project which included a class presentation with visual aids and a research paper. He was very excited about this and knew right away he would choose Germany, a country his dad had once lived in, to learn more about. In the end he completed a two page paper to share with the class. His self evaluation supported his interest in this assignment and although late and with several required parts missing he had a paper. His writing skills were not up to grade level standards, both organizationally and grammatically, but learning had definitely taken place. His fascination with this country was heard in his words. My dilemma was how to grade the paper, especially using the required rubric provided by the district. As an instructor/ facilitator/ evaluator there wasn’t any tiny box in which I could write in big red letters, “Look how much you learned! “ and award points for it. I wished that I had instituted a concrete method at the beginning of the year which might have accelerated this student’s proficiency with written expression, one that would have demonstrated his growth to him in a visible, timely, consistent progression. Thus both my history as a student and my own teaching experience have brought me to my burning question, “Will portfolio assessment motivate student writers and demonstrate growth in writing skills?”