Springtime in Georgia brings abundant pollen, April showers, restless middle school learners, and the state end of year Milestones testing. This year I decided to craft “work at your own pace” station rotations that emphasized the three types of writing prompts students would see plus some additional stations to support our study of poetry and independent choice nonfiction book reading. In addition to sample writing prompts and exemplars to examine at each station, students also had the opportunity to practice some of the sample multiple choice items. Using state released materials, I crafted stations to help my students unpack constructed responses (2 points each of varying DOK levels but primarily Level 3 and 4), extended constructed responses (on our assessment, this is always a 4 point narrative writing prompt), and extended essay, a 7 point essay that is always argumentative or informational in nature. Below is a tour of the stations to give you an idea of what students explored at each station:
Because of time limitations, I did not ask students to complete any of the writing prompts, but every station asked students to consider these common questions:
- What is the writing prompt asking you to do?
- How might you go about tackling this kind of writing prompt?
- What strategies might you use to plan for this prompt?
- What qualities do you notice in the exemplar responses? What did the writer do well?
- How is the exemplar response different from the ones that did not get full credit?
Because of our testing schedule and adjustments needed to make those days work, not every class period has been meeting for the exact same number of minutes. However, all classes had approximately 7 class days to work through as many of the stations as they could. Students budgeted roughly 10-20 minutes per station depending on the tasks at each station.
My original plan was to have table groups lead discussions for each station. However, time constraints allowed me to do this with only class. I still wanted to have some kind of whole group discussion or conversation around the stations but be able to complete it in two class sessions. Last Wednesday evening, I quickly punted and crafted a multiple choice, fill in the blank, and short answer document that allowed us to review every station question as a point of discussion; the document was 11 pages and gave students something concrete to take home and review over the weekend. For students who were absent or even those who were present but may have left their review document in their locker, a PDF of the document with an answer key was posted in our Canvas course for easy access.
Thought we started testing for Language Arts this past Monday and classes met in the afternoon for a shorter time than normal, I wanted to do one final pass that afternoon at reviewing prompts. I designed another multiple choice style document that served as our warm-up and a final “look” at all types of writing prompts. Students kept these and were able to take them home in their “spring learning” folders.
This is a somewhat different approach than I used with my juniors last year, but overall, I’m pleased with how students worked through the stations and even my “triage” solution to address the time shortage for review/whole group discussion around the station work. In some ways, it may have been better for my 8th grade learners since they ended up having two hard copy resources to take home as a review/study tool to help them recognize the three different kind of prompts and to consider best ways to take on these kinds of prompts without sucking all their writing energy out of them prior to the actual state test.
I am definitely not an advocate of teaching to a test, but I do feel a responsibility to my students to help them be prepared for the language of the test, especially the writing tasks. With the exception of the narrative writing tasks, we did many writing assignments that paralleled the constructed response tasks and essay writing tasks as part of our daily literacy learning; in addition, each of our three district benchmarks gave students additional opportunities to practice these writing tasks in a “test” setting. Looking ahead to next year, I’m going to integrate more “timed” writings for these kinds of prompts and embed them as a part of the natural flow of units of study of literature and reading so that students will feel more comfortable by May with the prompts and completing them in a timed setting.