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Clear and Convincing

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The big day is Monday. Casting about for ways to prepare the weekend before, I decided to do another one of Patrick Ledesma’s tri-pane practice prompts. My two-year old son, who was supposed to be napping upstairs, woke up when I was six minutes into it. I made it back to the keyboard an hour or two later and forced myself to finish, but had lost my mojo. In reviewing, I realized that the only thing my practice essay presented clear and convincing evidence of was that I could type 370 words in approximately thirty minutes.

Anyway, here as a helpful reminder are the “Criteria for Scoring” from Patrick’s simulation, which I assume are pretty close to the real thing.

To satisfy the highest level of the scoring rubric, your response must provide clear, consistent, and convincing evidence of the following:
- an in-depth description of patterns of writing and writing conventions; and
- a thorough understanding of the recursive nature of the writing process.

And below are the prompt and my lame response, for all the world to see. The question is on something I am literally in the middle of doing with students right now, Romeo and Juliet. Specifically, a kid has written a comparison of the play and the cool movie version by Baz Luhrman, the one with guns and drugs and Leo DiCaprio.

My response to my response, other than self-flagellation, is that it doesn’t really reflect my teaching. Part of that is the timed format. I structured my answer, under the conditions, by paraphrasing the questions and then filling in the blanks below each to make a paragraph. It’s not organic, in the way that I normally write. (Ironic, isn’t it, that my response is supposed to reflect my knowledge of “the recursive nature of the writing process.”) But I don’t feel safe in doing that on this sort of essay. What else could they possibly take points off for more easily than not addressing the questions?

This also doesn’t feel right because the kids I have now would never write this sort of response, nor would I ever assign it. In other words, unlike the portfolio, which was based on my actual teaching, this is hypothetical to me and bears no resemblance to the circumstances under which I currently teach.

To whit, my own ninth graders have just finished reading the play, and are working on a final assessment we call “group troupe.” Basically, they are creating fifteen-minute long group dramatic essays by stringing together scenes from the play interwoven with their own narrative. It’s a fantastically complex activity, and beats the pants off, “Which did you like better, the movie or the book?”

As a matter of fact, while I skip school on Monday to take the test, my kids will be diligently rehearsing for performances on Thursday. Whether or not their teacher can muster clear and convincing responses on command in the assessment center, I’m confident the skits themselves will show that my students have engaged in a truly meaningful way with some of life’s biggest ideas via a classic piece of literature. May we all break a leg.

Student Prompt
I liked Romeo and Juliet, but I liked the movie much better then the play. When the movie’s setting was changed to today, the meaning becomes much more clearer.

When we read the play, the words are very hard to understand. When Romeo talked to Mercutio and he gives his speech about the queen and everything, it was hard to understand what he’s talking about. In the movie, it was easy to see that Mercutio is really cool and crazy and fun and the party was wild and Juliet’s parents don’t really love themselves.

The guys really like the girl who plays Juliet. She was pretty and enthusiastic and you could tell she really loved Romeo because she fought with her father, her mother fights with her too, Paris is just a creep. So you can see, I liked the movie. We spend so much time on the book and they’re hard to understand. So the movie is so much better. It’s easier to understand when you can see the people talking and hear what they say. I like seeing it in today’s world even if we really don’t know where it is

My Response
There are some significant areas of weakness in the use of conventions by this student. The first is evident in this run-on sentence from the third paragraph: "She was pretty and enthusiastic and you could tell she really loved Romeo because she fought with her father, her mother fights with her too, Paris is just a creep." The sentence expresses several ideas jumbled up together: that Claire Danes (the actress who played Juliet) was appealing, that she is in conflict with both her parents, and that this student didn't like the character of Paris, the suitor favored by Juliet's parents.

A second area of weakness in the use of conventions by this student has to do with agreement. In paragraph one, she says, "When the movie’s setting was changed to today, the meaning becomes much more clearer." Later, in the last paragraph, the student writes, "We spend so much time on the book and they’re hard to understand."

In addition to these mechanics problems, there are weaknesses in organization and content. The most glaring of these is the lack of development. The main idea is that she likes the movie better than the play because she can understand it better. The thesis is vaguely supported throughout the essay. But the last paragraph, especially the first half, refers to a number of supporting details from the plot without elaboration.

If this student were to write a similar piece, I would use two strategies to address the weakness in organization and content. First, before the paper itself was written, I would have the student create a web or outline to more strongly group her ideas. This writing seems to develop as it unfolds, which is fine for a "discovery" writing or journal, but is not adequate for an analytical essay.

A second strategy I would suggest is for the student to read her writing aloud in a revision group, paying careful attention to sentence length and clarity. While I like to review student drafts also and give feedback by conference before the final, I find that often students can help one another find these errors. Simply the act of reading aloud, for example, is often enough to notice overly long sentences or awkwardly worded phrases.

3 Comments

Emmet, as I read your response, it seems harsh to me. I know the questions are asking about the students' weaknesses. For the third question, is there some way to use the student's strengths as a jumping off point for improving the work? Clearly the student is a visual learner who benefits from the contextual clues in the movie. Are there any writing techniques that might take advantage of the student's preferred learning style? It seems like by focusing on the technical aspects of the writing process you're losing some of the more interesting things, like idea generation and elaboration. I'm really curious about the student's statement about Juliet's parents.

Emmet, you will likely do well, based on your travelogues through the National Board journey...just a couple of final points. For the nonprint media sample, have in mind one or more movies, overhead transparency paintings, etc., that convey more than one "universal theme." I encourage you to be familiar with "big picture" stages of how an ELL student learns English as a second language. Finally, decide early on in the Assessment Center process a framework, or plan of approach for how much time you will take to read the opening expectations, the actual English scenario, the questions (2-3 upper right corner panes for each exam section), and your response to each component of the question. I was satisfied to begin "at the end," by rephrasing each question as a declarative sentence phrase opener. Then, I tackled the scenario, challenging my brain-fingers-keyboard in a grueling 180 minutes of mental processing and typing! Best wishes!

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