Alan MacInnis

Rethinking Learning for the 21st Century

A Little Lightbulb on Essays and Evidence

If your students are anything like mine, they’re probably pretty good at finding evidence from a text for their essays but terrible at using it effectively once they’ve found it. They tend to drop it into a paragraph like a brick, occasionally introduced and perhaps cited correctly, but not explained. If you’re already nodding your head, I needn’t go much further describing the problem.

I recently had that a-ha-lightbulb-not-quite-transcendental-but-close moment in class.

Before I describe the breakthrough, a little background. Trafalgar Castle School has been implementing a tailored-to-age version of the University of Chicago’s Little Red Schoolhouse (LRS) writing programme, and I recently settled on the wording for the 5 elements of effective argumentation that we discuss. (The elements themselves have been filtered through the LRS, based on Toulmin’s theory, augmented with George Hillocks, Jr., and others, massaged and handed over to me by a wonderful former colleague, Theresa Fuller, who is now at Branksome Hall.) It’s the fourth element that’s relevant here. (The other questions are for another post at another time.)

4. Have…?

As in “Have you explained your thinking?”, which can be expanded to, “Have you explained how your evidence supports your reason and how your reason supports your claim?” In order to show the importance of this question, I usually require my Grade 12 students to write their first essay on a short piece, so they’re forced to deal with the same bits of evidence, no matter what they’re arguing.

Song lyrics work well for this assignment, especially for students who find poetry intimidating. So does Theodore Roethke’s brilliant “My Papa’s Waltz”. I ask my students to argue if the poem is generally positive or negative. What makes it a fantastic subject is that students can–and do!–use the exact same excerpts of text as evidence for both sides.

If one can use the exact same piece of evidence to argue one side or the other, it prioritizes the explanation.

If one can use the exact same piece of evidence to argue one side or the other, it prioritizes the explanation. The student can no longer just go, “Here” and drop in the evidence. They must analyze the text and make their thinking visible.

I had a breakthrough with the same concept, but with a different group: Grade 9s, many of whom are English language learners. During a break in a lesson, some students were discussing a photo of one person kissing another on the cheek, and the question arose as to whether they were just friends or more than just friends. So we made that the lesson.

What do you think: Are they just friends? Yes or no? Why do you think so?

The only evidence to analyze was the picture, yet the class was pretty much split 50/50. If the same evidence was the foundation for opposing claims, then differences must arise with the analysis and explanation of the evidence.

With longer texts, the temptation is to use different bits of evidence to argue opposing views; with a short poem, song lyrics, or photograph, the evidence doesn’t change.



In praise of the mock assessment

My favourite assessment tool is the sight passage.

It’s the best way—and I’m more-than-a-little tempted to say the only way—to assess an English student’s proficiency with our discipline’s skills. That’s why I recently had my students write for eighty minutes on stories they hadn’t read before. And that’s why they’ll be doing it again this week.

But this isn’t an apologia for sight passages; it’s an ode to the dress rehearsal, the practice exam, the mock assessment.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. Although I think we can all serve to be reminded at times that our students need to practise how to take tests, my ode is more targeted at what to do with the mock assessment once it’s finished. And the answer to that is easy: Have your students mark them.

So I guess my piece should be titled “In praise of peer-evaluated mock in-class assessments”. (But I’m sure you can see why I’m not changing it now…)

So I guess my piece should be titled
“In praise of peer-evaluated mock in-class assessments”.

I must give credit to my wife, who’s been teaching much longer than I, for suggesting that my students mark each other’s work. That simple change takes what would otherwise be a great formative activity and transfers into what just may be the best assessment as and for learning I’ve come across so far. (And leave it to a veteran teacher to suggest a change that not only saves my marking 60 tests but makes it more valuable for the students, as well.)

Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Make your mock assessment and the “for marks” eval. as similar in format as possible.
    I know I’ve been guilty at times of following the athletic mantra of “You don’t train for 100s by running 100s”, but do you think Usain Bolt prepared for the Olympics by never running 100 metres?
  • Have your students use the same rubric you’ll be using.
    Obviously… But it’s a great way of seeing the utility of your rubric. If they can’t use it to mark someone else’s work, it won’t help them with their own. You should also be prepared to provide guidance as to what various level 4 answers would include.
  • Consider putting the students in groups.
    Doing so will not only expose students to more examples, it will also allow you as the facilitator to tag on to groups in a less-threatening manner. And it’s way more time efficient than one-on-one conferencing. I’d suggest the students moderate their marking, as opposed to a divide-and-conquer approach.
  • Have your students start with something positive.
    “Two to glow on, and one to grow on” sounds a little cheesy, but it’s great way of reminding students to empathize. And if two isn’t possible, then insist they find one.
  • Remember to collect them all afterwards!
    You have the last word. Look especially for groups that are either too hard or too soft. Record as a formative mark. You may also want to copy or hold on to exemplars for various levels, and return to the students before the one that counts.

And, of course, the meta-cognitive benefits are plenty. Students will be able to gauge where they stand, what they need to improve upon, if they need to work on time management, and even if they need to write more legibly—all in a low-pressure environment.

Students see the benefits in this approach, and you needn’t worry about how to answer that dreaded question, “Is this for marks?” It’s well worth dedicating the extra period.

Musings on interdisciplinary assessments and English’s role

I like that word musings, especially when it’s all by itself. No articles, definite or otherwise, to suggest how many will follow. And it certainly doesn’t posses the authority of Action Plan, whether it be an or the… Maybe my musings will one day lead to my action plan, but I’m not there yet.

But I think I’m somewhere… Here’s a link to the requisite “slides”.

Musing the first…

When I talk about interdisciplinary assessments, I really mean assessment. One. (And possibly more of an of learning than an as.) Not a multitude of units or projects loosely united by a theme, but a whole. A thing. A deliverable, to borrow a term from bizspeak.

Sure, there can be parts, and maybe they can be ongoing assessments as learning. But if they’re pieces, I want to see them put together, the greater-than-the-sum. And I don’t want to see the seams.

I want to see answers to questions that matter; solutions to wicked problems; innovation; action plans.

Why? you may ask. Perhaps it’s the sense of accomplishment and the tangibleness of a thing that can be shared, showcased, disseminated, and, most importantly, consumed.

Musing the second…

When I first questioned if students of English had more to bring to the cross-curricular table than communication skills alone, I did so anticipating the answer of, Of course we do.

Of course we do. But instead of issuing an impassioned apologia, I’ll link to one instead: Inspiring Apple Commercial. And for those of you who are partial to the source material: Clip from The Dead Poet’s Society. Those about cover it.

And that’s why we still study Shakespeare; and that’s why we shouldn’t stop.

But how would this fit on a rubric?

Sublime transcendence: thorough; considerable; some; limited.

I do believe students of English and the arts can bring this concept of humanity to the wicked problems or questions that matter, but I wouldn’t want to have to mark it. Perhaps someone more capable than I can create that rubric.

So maybe I need to rephrase the answer: Of course we have more to bring to cross-curricular projects than communication skills, but we won’t. Let us be the custodians of communication, and we’ll be happy.

Let us be the custodians of communication, and we’ll be happy.

As the only discipline with an entirely skills-based curriculum, it makes sense that we leave the content to our colleagues in other subjects. Just leave the communication to us.

Musing the third…

The job sharing I muse about above may seem simple, but I think it provides an integral first step towards truly meaningful (dare I say, authentic) interdisciplinary projects. No more creating a project on flowers in biology then writing a poem about a lily in English. Instead, why not have the English teacher assess how well the student presents his or her final product, whether it be spoken, written, filmed, or all of the above. (More on this a little later.)

No more creating a project on flowers in biology then writing a poem about a lily in English.

Easy, right? Yep. And scalable, too. Simply add as many teachers who are willing and who also have direct curricular links to the content being studied. (Of course timing and co-ordinating one of these wicked-problem projects would be tough and require total buy-in from all involved, but wouldn’t it be nice if the curricular connections were one less worry?)

But what if there aren’t enough curricular connections? What then?

Musing the fourth…

I wrote earlier about how disheartening it was to tell grades eleven and twelve students they couldn’t work on a particular topic because they didn’t fit nicely into the curricula of the courses they were taking at the time.  The first-step I muse about above went a long way to salvaging a fabulous initiative, but I think we can go even further.

If we assess the skills and thinking that a discipline fosters, we’ll open up a trove of authentic learning opportunities for our students.

I initially thought that merely making a semantic switch would work (from cross-curricular to interdisciplinary), but I realize we won’t get far if we stray away from the curriculum. But let’s entertain that difference for a movement. If we focus too much on the content in the curriculum itself, we’ll constrict the learning opportunities for our students. Is DNA grade 11 or 12 Bio? But if we focus on the thinking and skills fostered by the discipline, those constrictions all but vanish. The question, then, becomes, How would a biologist approach this topic? How would an historian? An economist?

If we assess the skills and thinking that a discipline fosters, we’ll open up a trove of authentic learning opportunities for our students. And with a focus on the demonstration of skills, which particular content a student choses to showcase those skills is immaterial.

Musing the fifth…

Look… There’s nothing revolutionary now about saying skills, critical thinking, and habits of mind are more important than content. No one talks about 21st Century “content musts”. And, almost as equally obvious, of course content is essential–you need something to think critically about. So I guess I’m musing about removing some of the obstacles to true interdisciplinary learning–curricular ones.

The Ontario Science Curriculum for 11 and 12 has three overarching goals (page 6):

  • to understand the basic concepts of science
  • to develop the skills, strategies, and habits of mind required for scientific inquiry
  • to relate science to technology, society, and the environment

Or, in a nutshell, to think like a scientist.

The Canadian and World Studies Curriculum for 11 and 12 includes these among its overarching goals (3):

  • develop practical skills (such as critical-thinking, research, and communication skills), some of which are particular to a given subject in Canadian and world studies and some of which are common to all the subjects in the discipline;
  • apply the knowledge and skills they acquire in Canadian and world studies courses to better understand their interactions with the natural environment; the political, economic, and cultural interactions among groups of people; the relationship between technology and society; and the factors contributing to society’s continual evolution.

Many math teachers stress the benefits of gap analysis, a tool that lends itself to all problems, even ones without numbers.

The curriculum for 11 and 12 math doesn’t have an easily-copyable-and-pastable bullet on problem-solving skills, but perhaps that’s because their importance permeates the strands and learning objectives. Many math teachers stress the benefits of gap analysis, a tool that lends itself to all problems, even ones without numbers.

Yes, I focus on the senior grades, not just because I teach them but also because students are less likely to take similar courses the older they are.

Musing the sixth…

So what would a rubric look like for one of these El Dorado-esque projects? Who would assess what? Good questions…

Let’s concede communication skills to the English, if only because it’s the one course that all students have to take.

For the former, just like any other but with (potentially) one major difference: the Knowledge and Understanding category would likely bow out if the content is not directly a topic of study for a given curriculum. Of course, if the content is related, then back in it comes.

For the latter, and for simplicity’s sake, let’s concede communication skills to the English, if only because it’s the one course that all students have to take. Check.

The rest, then, would depend on the disciplines involved and the nature of the projects. All relevant teachers would simply divvy up Thinking & Inquiry and Application or even divide them, depending on what they need to assess for their own courses.

I first envisioned only a two-category rubric–Inquiry and Communication–but what could be a better way of assessing skills and methodologies than by applying them to new content not covered in class by the teacher? Maybe Application is the assessment saviour here.

Musing the last…

If the English teacher, at least for these interdisciplinary projects, will be the custodian of communication, must we require the students to work within a prescribed medium? If you want. But why not let them choose? For my students this year, they can choose whatever medium they like: report, video, presentation, short-doc, multi-media–anything, really. And I’ll assess them on how well they communicate their thinking and methodologies.

And if you need to flesh out a particular strand, then do so.

Happy collaborating!

Double-Duty Assessments

At our first Friday Face-to-Face, at the fabulously cool MaRS Commons in Toronto, Celeste Kirsh beamed about the synergy she and a colleague had about a thematic-based culminating assessment that would work for both her (in English) and the colleague (in Social Studies). I shared her excitement, but then recalled the singular opportunity I missed out on during my first year teaching.

I taught all sections of Grade 8 Language and Social Studies, and I spent the last few days of summer planning how I wanted to spend the first half of the year using Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic-Book Biography as the spine of a truly interdisciplinary unit.

It didn’t happen.

What a waste! Chalk it up to the craziness and disorganization of the first-year teacher.

What a waste!

But I’m determined to make up for it. A meaningful inter-disciplinary project will happen. With my grade 12s. Even though they’re taking different subjects. That I don’t teach.

It will.

(More to come.)

The Action-Plan Post

(I joked with a Cohort 21 member during our last session at B.S.S. that my action plan may need to be an action plan for having an action plan. I think I have moved beyond that, but perhaps only just…)

At Trafalgar Castle School, our Experiential Learning Coordinator, Christina Schindler, recently initiated a fabulous school-wide programme based on The Rotman School of Management’s iThink methodology for problem solving. For students in grades 11 and 12, the methodology forms the basis for a cross-curricular independent research project. Students were to find curricular connections for their ideas to at least two courses that they’re currently taking. This proved more difficult than we’d all thought.

I wondered if skills-based assessments were the magic bullet for making interdisciplinary PBL projects truly cross-curricular?

Students easily discovered that their ideas related well to, say, math and bio–but not necessarily to Calc and Grade 12 Bio. Connections to disciplines were abundant. Not so connections to specific courses.

As a potential solution, I suggested that students ask their English teachers if they’d be willing to assess their projects from a communication perspective, either oral, written, or media. This “catch-all” expedient was possible because of English’s unique position of having an entirely skills-based curriculum. (I’ll let you know how this works out!)

Based on this experience, I wondered if skills-based assessments were the magic bullet for making interdisciplinary PBL projects truly cross-curricular, so as to not stress over the content as much?

Can English contribute more to PBL assessments than solely communication skills? If so, how?

And, as an English teacher, I wondered if there could be more for English to contribute to PBL assessments than communication skills (and obvious thematic overlaps)?  (I don’t for a second suggest that strong communication skills aren’t essential. I’m merely curious if we as teachers and our kids as students of English can offer more?)

So that’s the kernel of an idea for a potential action plan for developing an action plan.

Should I uncover other usefulness for we English folk in the PBL/cross-curricular arena, I’ll certainly proliferate. If not, I’d like to focus on how best communication skills should be employed in 21st-century learning.

So, we tweeted…

…which means I need a new reference.

Hmm… How about the players? That should work. I coached the troop; they performed the altered play; I saw Claudius’s reaction: now what?

Please consider this a status up-date–It’s not yet ready for prime time.

I had twenty prompts ready, each a modern-day equivalent of a major plot point in Hamlet. I also flipped all of the genders, as I teach in an all-girls school.  This also allowed me to have some fun with names: Rosie and Gina; Aunt Claudette and Garth (sorry Garth Nichols!); Harriet… (The modern-day aspect aligns well with Michelle Ray’s fun retelling, Falling for Hamlet.)

After each prompt, I had asked the girls to tweet their responses.

In short, it was a blast. Absolutely hilarious. I think hashtagging is a new art form. (I’ll share the best shortly.)

I had students tell me it was the most fun they ever had in class. Other students, who missed class for a play rehearsal, could re-live the lesson for homework! And one said it was the most fun she ever had doing “homework”.

Here’s what I can conclude:

  • Students were completely engaged–I have the tweets to prove it!
  • It took them a little to open up, but then they quickly played off one another and the tweets began to flow fast and furious.
  • When given the option, students will be profane… (more on this later).
  • When I did a character map/plot exercise with them next period, they were ready–made it go a lot more smoothly.

The engagement and fun were worth the effort (no regrets; the plot/character reinforcement was valuable).

Stay tuned! I’m about to encounter Claudius in the chapel…

More to come!



“To tweet, or not to tweet?”

Okay, that was too obvious, wasn’t it? How about…

Whether ’tis nobler in class to suffer
The drool and snoring of our bored students,
Or to plunge deep into the Twitterverse,
And, by embracing it–(do I dare dream?)–
Find (Oh!) engagement! learning, through hash tag,
An @, and long’d-for collaboration?

Right… That was worse. Please excuse the terrible blank verse. (Ooops.)

I decided to not make like “the Dane”: Instead, I twittered away invested almost an entire period getting my ENG4U students armed for twitter. Why? you might ask.

It started with a great lesson plan idea from Jason Lilly that has students tweet their reactions to a series of modern-day occurrences that mirror the plot of Hamlet. I did it in class last year by having my students pretend they were on twitter, and I liked the results. I had intended to do it in class yesterday, but, the night before, while I watched the streamed version of the latest Cohort 21 hangout, I asked, Why have them pretend? Why, indeed.

I had all my students make a new (or perhaps dedicated would be better) twitter account using their school emails. (Most of them who use twitter have their accounts tied to their personal emails.) I figured if the class were only following each other and me, and, importantly, if they “protected” their tweets under the privacy settings, everything would be as controlled as possible. I required that their user names by easily identifiable, and I made a new account, too.

A couple of things to keep in mind if you try this.

  1. If you have too many people trying to make new accounts from the same IP address, twitter gets paranoid, so a few students may need to wait a bit before getting accounts.
  2. twitter only lets you have one account per email, so if one of your colleagues has tried this before, your students may need to create another email account.
  3. My students found my not-for-class account in about 1.5 seconds, so thankfully it’s all fairly benign.
  4. The expert students love helping rookies set up their accounts.

After a lot of following, requesting, pending, and accepting, we were all set up. I thought a google.doc may help here, but most of them just found each other without it.

Before I knew it, they were tweeting Hamlet resources and (awesomely!) suggesting witty hashtags for differed scenarios: #ThatIsTheQuestion when you’re lost or curious; #HamLetUp when punning or for related witticisms, etc.

So… To tweet, or not to tweet? I’ll let you know. Lilly’s LP is on tap next clas, without the pretending.

Stay tuned.


 seems fabulous.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a unit’s worth of exit tickets compiled and filed for parent/teacher interviews? My students seem to think it’s cool, too, but I wonder if it’s because it’s novel.

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