Designing a Meaningful Extended Narrative Writing Assignment in Context

This past spring, I read a blog post by Dr. Sarah J. Donovan that pushed me to think about how to better integrate Milestones writing tasks into context.  While I certainly am not a fan of teaching to a test, her approach made sense to me because students received regular and gentle writing opporutnities to practice the skills they would be asked to demonstrate on the state assessment.  I have been integrating Quickwrites into our classroom life 2-3x per week (a blog post on that soon), and I felt that our first short story, “Raymond’s Run”, presented an opportunity for us to flex our writing muscles with an extended narrative task since it is a state writing task on the Milestones and is also part of our first district benchmark in October.

In my previous post, I outlined the details of the 4 point extended narrative writing task students in 8th grade will be asked to complete on the state Milestones assessment in late April or early May of 2020:

After seeing these struggles, I am confident that students’ difficulty in punctuating dialogue correctly is where many of them are losing points on our state Milestones test we take each spring, particularly with the extended narrative writing task, a writing task that is worth 4 points:

On the ELA EOG assessment, an extended constructed-response item elicits a longer, more complex and detailed response from the student. The four-point narrative extended constructed-response item requires the student to write a narrative in response to a prompt based on a literary or informational passage he or she has read;
the response will fully develop a real or imagined experience based on the text and will be scored for the Writing and Language domain.

Source:  Georgia Grade 8 EOG Item and Scoring Sampler 

A student who achieves a score of 4 demonstrates these skills on an extended narrative writing task:

  • The student’s response is a well-developed narrative that fully develops a real or imagined experience based on text as a stimulus.
  • Effectively establishes a situation and a point of view and introduces a narrator and/or characters.
  • Organizes an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically.
  • Effectively uses narrative techniques, such as dialogue, description, pacing, and reflection, to develop rich, interesting experiences, events, and/or characters.
  • Uses a variety of words and phrases consistently and effectively to convey the sequence of events, signal shifts from one time frame or setting to another, and show the relationships among experiences and events.
  • Uses precise words, phrases, and sensory language to convey experiences and events and capture the action.
  • Provides a conclusion that follows from the narrated experiences or events.
  • Integrates ideas and details from source material effectively.
  • Has very few or no errors in usage and/or conventions that interfere with meaning.

Even though our focus is on composing strong dialogue, this standard 8W3 goes hand in hand with a distinguished (highest level) of achievement in Standard RL3:

Analyzes and evaluates the effectiveness of an author’s use of dialogue or incidents in a story or drama to propel the action, reveal complex aspects of the character, or provoke a decision.

Source:  Georgia Milestones Assessment System Achievement Level Descriptors for Grade 8 English Language Arts

With all of these requirements and possibilities in mind, I crafted our writing task:

The rubric on the back is the one from the state testing resource guide and available for teachers, parents, and students to study on the state DOE website.  I cross-posted the same requirements in our assignment slot in Canvas as well.

We began by talking about what it would mean to continue the story and brainstorming our ideas for continuing the story.  Most students needed a day or so to complete this task; some needed 1.5 days.  I used student work as they completed their planning to share with our other classes as models.  You can get the template for free here:

Once students had completed this first stage of brainstorming, we moved to some more intentional planning.  For three of my sections, I allowed students to choose from one of three graphic organizers to help them focus on developing their plot details OR their characterization in more detail.  One class section was asked to do both one plot planner and the characterization planner because I knew they would need more scaffolding to help them think through their story ideas.

If you like these planners, you can buy them here on Teachers Pay Teachers.  You definitely get the bang for your buck with this purchase as you get many different types of planners and graphic organizers for different types of writing, and they are easy for kids to use!  Some students wanted to incorporate sticky notes into their planners, and another wanted to sketchnote her ideas in addition to completing the regular graphic organizers.

Once I had reviewed students’ planning work (this took approximately 2 days for most students though a few needed 2.5 to 3 days), they were cleared to begin drafting.  We spent approximately three days drafting last week (Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday) to get as much detail and depth as possible in our draft.  Students shared their drafts with me as they created their Google Docs, and I provided feedback both on demand and as a “drop in” guest making sure I put eyes on every draft at least twice in those three days.  I honestly don’t have photos from those days because I was helping students bell to bell every period, every day.

In addition, this resource I created a few years ago while teaching Writing Connections was updated and embedded in the Canvas assignment for students who needed help crafting a strong hook, using strong words, or “exploding the moment” in a section of their story.

Though it sounds simple to us as adults, this work was intense for my 8th graders, and it was crazy hectic the entire week we worked on planning and drafting because students were checking in with me regularly for feedback and a final “all clear” before moving on to the next step—in many ways, it was like a playlist learning structure without the actual playlist.  In the future, I might design this planning work as a playlist learning experience.

I will be the first to tell you teaching narrative writing is NOT my wheelhouse since we typically don’t teach it at the high school level, and most of my teaching experience is in grades 9-12.  However, the kids were quite interested in their story ideas and doing their planning, so I am thankful for their optimism and efforts they put into doing some thinking before just randomly hashing out a rough draft.   I feel like these tools and approaches have worked well though I am always interested in exploring other approaches.  With some of our time constraints we’re under, I felt these tools provided enough scaffolding to get my kids started without being overly regimented or overwhelming to them.

What are your best ideas and strategies for teaching narrative writing, especially a state assessment type of task involving narrative writing?

In my next post, I’ll share our next steps once we had a working rough draft completed.

“Milestones Mania and More!” Station Rotations and Review

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.

EOC Writing Test Prep with Noticings and an Inquiry Stance

We’re sprinting toward EOC testing this Friday with some inquiry stance/noticings based activities for informational/explanatory constructed response prompts and extended constructed response narrative prompts.  Using materials available to the public from the Georgia Department of Education, students had opportunities to read literary and informational texts.  We then looked at possible constructed response and extended constructed response prompts (see my previous blog post for a description) based on each of these texts.

Students were asked to read the passages and examine the two possible prompts attached to that text.  Students then had the opportunity to think about:

  • What is the prompt asking you to do?
  • How would you go about planning, organizing, and designing your response?
  • What ideas/strategies are important to keep in mind as you construct and compose your response?

Students jotted down their ideas on a graphic organizer I provided them.  We then did a large group share out and compiled a list responses.  I then projected exemplars for each prompt on the board with the LCD projector and students completed the final column of the graphic organizer by jotting down their noticings about the exemplar prompts.  This final piece of the thinking activity led to one more round of large group discussion and a chance for students to compare their original list of ideas to the second list of noticings with the exemplars.

This activity is great to do because it gets students thinking about how they might attack these kinds of prompts as writers, but it is also especially helpful if you don’t have time to have students do a full-blown draft of these kinds of prompts.  Last but not least, this activity is a great formative assessment to quickly identify gaps in understandings.  For example, from our conversations today I quickly heard a few students misunderstood the second prompt, and I easily had a teachable moment.  These noticings may sound simple on the surface, but the activity forces students to do some deep thinking as well as a chance to engage in dialogue and learn from their peers

Strategic Writing Loops and Blind Peer Review for the Georgia Milestones EOC Test

This Friday, April 27 and Monday, April 30, my juniors will take the Georgia Milestones/End of Course test in 11th American Literature and Composition Language Arts, a state exam that counts as 20% of their final average.  Though ideally I would have done more intentional writing loops earlier in the year like those outlined in the series from Moving Writers, we have been focusing on practice and work with mentor texts with the three types of writing tasks my students will see:

  • Constructed Response: item asks a question, and you provide a response that you construct on your own. These questions are worth two points. Partial credit may be awarded if part of the response is correct.
  • Extended Constructed Response:  item is a specific type of constructed-response item that requires a longer, more detailed response. These items are worth four points. Partial credit may be awarded.  At least one of these items will be a narrative prompt based on a passage presented to a student.
  • Extended Writing Response:  this  item is located in section one of the ELA EOC (Day 1 of the test).  Students are expected to produce an argument or develop an informative or explanatory response based on information read in two passages.  The extended writing response task is scored on a 7-point scale: 4 points for idea  development, organization, and coherence, and 3 points for language usage and conventions.

Though I feel my students are fairly well prepared for all of the possible writing tasks, I also believe it is important to provide them practice writing situations with the kinds of test prompts they will see so they can feel comfortable with the structure and language of the prompt.   We began reviewing and composing constructed responses roughly ten days ago, and our starting point was a writer’s notebook prompt asking students to recall what they knew about argumentative writing since that was my first writing genre of focus.  Once students had time to brainstorm individually, we composed collaborative lists in four of my classes.  You can look at the similarities and differences in depth and detail below:

Interestingly enough, my “lower” level classes included more details in their lists, and my 4B class made connections back to mentor texts we had studied last semester and this semester.   My 4B  class was so enthusiastic and engaged that I could barely keep up with them as I typed their responses—this moment was truly a memorable moment for a class that has come far from August when they felt they should not be asked to do any thinking or work on a Friday!

Once we completed our notebook time and collaborative share out, we reviewed the criteria for a high quality response on a constructed argumentative writing task.  Using the online materials from the DOE, I provided students a sample prompt and they composed their response in class.  I then collected these, made copies on neon paper (color coded by class period),  and  then used assorted neon stickers to hide names for the blind peer review activity I had planned as our next step.

My first pass at the blind peer review was this past Tuesday with periods 2A and 4A; my original design was to have students provide blind peer review individually.  We began with notebook time in which students looked at an exemplar constructed response for our prompt; students also got to look at a model that would have received one point and a model that would have received zero points.  For each model, I asked students to list their noticing about each model; we then shared aloud.  With the notebook time and noticings as our springboard, we then moved into our blind peer review gallery walk.

As we began our blind peer review gallery walk, I asked students to complete these tasks for each draft reviewed:

  1.  Read the draft closely and then complete a rubric with two open ended questions.  Once finished, place the rubric in the folder that is next to the draft (mounted on pastel chart paper) and put a check on the folder to indicate you have placed a rubric in the folder.
  2.  Annotate one piece of the draft; I provided students a handout with sentence starters for possible “glows” and “grows” to use if they got stuck.  These statements were based on the criteria on the state rubric for a constructed response on the EOC test.  I mounted the drafts on the pastel chart paper so that students would have plenty of room to annotate.
  3. Try to gather “mentor” sentences of high quality writing that they might collect to use as models for their own writing; I provided students a handout to serve as their collecting place for these mentor sentences.

Students worked for about 40-45 minutes on the gallery walk with the goal of reviewing as many drafts as possible with quality.  Once completed, I sent students to their own work using a roster of the number assignments I had crafted to make sure everyone found his/her work.  Students then did a brief three question reflection before leaving; once finished, students could fold their chart paper with the draft annotations/feedback and tuck in the folder with their rubrics to take home with them.

While I was pleased with the flow of the activity, I didn’t quite feel the energy I had expected from either class.  After thinking about what I might do differently to ramp up the energy of the activity, I decided to have students work in pairs the next day.  To make the assignment of pairs random and fast, I simply had students come find a table when they arrived in the media center with the stipulation of no more than two people per table.

This move was DEFINITELY the right one!  Because students knew they would need to read the draft with their partner and collaborate on all areas of the feedback, they were more intentional with their constructive reading of the drafts and the feedback they were providing.  I was incredibly impressed by the depth and detail of many of the conversations I heard as I walked around and observed students working; I felt joy listening to the thinking that was taking place out loud.  I highly recommend having students work and talk through their analysis of a draft of writing in pairs.

In closing, this activity was a considerable investment of time (especially on our modified block schedule), especially for a constructed response, but I think it was a great opening writing loop and collaborative thinking activity for my students.  We’re doing some shorter bursts of different responses and collaborative work now as we get closer to test day.  As I return to middle school this fall to teach 8th Language Arts,  I hope to incorporate these writing loops and experiences earlier into the year and into our units of writing year-round; these kinds of experiences will fit into my larger framework of having writing groups and circles in my classroom in 2018-19.