Three Kinds of Models

30 Nov

I’ve been playing around with using models (a.k.a. exemplars, anchor papers, etc.) for several years now, but more recently I have been using them quite regularly in classroom instruction time.

Here’s a recent example:

After a recent grade 9 unit on poetry, I wanted to give students a summative assessment that assessed their knowledge of poetic devices, reading comprehension, and Schaffer paragraph writing skills, but I wanted to do two of them — one as practice and one that counted.

For the first, practice test, I borrowed a poem and prompt from a past British Columbia Provincial Exam for grade 12 that asked the following:

In paragraph form and with reference to “The Quarter Horse Colts,” discuss how the use of poetic devices reflects the speaker’s attitude toward nature.

When I graded the tests, right away I noticed a difference between the strong ones and the weaker ones; the strong ones all had good or great topic sentences that answered the prompt. The weaker ones for the most part addressed the prompt partially or not all, making the rest of the paragraph fairly hard to write well.

I typed up several model topic sentences from the students’ own tests and placed them back to back. They were:

  1. The use of poetic devices in the poem makes the speaker seem observant and peaceful.
  2. In the poem “The Quarter Horse Colts,” the author uses two main poetic devices, imagery and simile, in order to convey her attitude toward nature.
  3. Huettl uses multiple poetic devices to show how much she enjoys nature.
  4. In the poem, the author uses a variety of literary devices to paint a picture in the reader’s mind.

I beamed up on the projector a paper with the prompt and the four model topic sentences. I told them that their first job when responding to any prompt is to figure out exactly what it’s asking and what must be answered. Together we acknowledged that there were three separate components of this prompt to answer:

  1. the use of poetic devices
  2. the speaker’s attitude
  3. toward nature.

I then asked students in their table groups to decide whether any of them were good topic sentences based on whether or not they answered all three of those components, and to rate them best to worst.

Right away, students saw that numbers 1 and 4 were the weakest, because they didn’t answer the prompt. There was some good debate over answers 2 and 3, and most agreed that 2 was the best, but that the best option of all would be a combination of 2 and 3, one that read:

In the poem “The Quarter Horse Colts,” the author uses two main poetic devices, imagery and simile, in order to convey her joyful, positive attitude toward nature.

Even better was when I asked what was the difference between a strong topic sentence and a weak one, and the students themselves volunteered comments like, “The first one isn’t specific enough,” and “Number 2 is much more detailed.” These are the kinds of comments I write ad nauseum on their papers but they never seem to be able to transfer that kind of understanding of the comment to the next assessment in order to do better.

To top it off, I shared a sample “excellent” paragraph with them and went through it piece by piece to see how it followed the Schaffer model.

I gave the exact same style of test a week later but with a different poem and prompt. Out of 29 ninth graders, 23 students raised their grade from the practice test to the graded test; two stayed the same, three went down by one point out of 20 and one went down by two points. The best part was that 12 students with Cs and Ds on the practice test went on to get Bs and As on the graded one.

Using models of high, average, and low quality and then asking students to grade or rank them and explain why is helpful in getting students to see the difference between being effective and being off the mark — something they don’t understand instinctively, even with feedback.

And if you worry you don’t have class time because there is too much else to do, don’t. The topic sentence workshop took all of 15 minutes of class time, and it saved me hours of grading and extra-help time, as students largely did much better on the final test.

4 Responses to “Three Kinds of Models”

  1. Ken C. November 30, 2013 at 6:08 pm #

    Interesting post. I like exemplars, too, and literary analysis is one of the toughest nuts for students to crack. Many say the downside of exemplars are that students copy them. I say the upside is the same thing — students copy them. Only I prefer to say, “The students use them as models and emulate them, just as all young writers emulate poets, novelists, and short story/essay writers they enjoy reading.

    What was your choice for the second poem? Sometimes finding the right poem for students to analyze is as difficult as the analyzing itself!

    • alexisswiggins November 30, 2013 at 6:14 pm #

      I used another of the BC exams, which comes with a poem and good reading comp/literary device multiple choice questions, as well as a prompt. This poem was titled Summer in Yakima Valley. I agree with you about poem choice; I sorted through several of the exams to find the right kind of poem, usually ones with lots of imagery and simple plot, as they are only grade 9 after all and the BC exams are for older students.

      • Ken C. November 30, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

        I use a lot of poems from Nancie Atwell’s NAMING THE WORLD. Although she taught (teaches?… thought she retired last year, but not sure) middle school, the difficulty level in that book runs the gamut, so you can gauge choices such that they prove a challenge for each class.

        Among my favorites for analysis (I teach 8th) is “Revelations in the Key of K” by Mary Karr (available on-line also, I think). The kids knock themselves out trying to nail it because it looks easy but is deceptively difficult.

  2. Cathleen Lin December 24, 2013 at 10:11 am #

    I find that the self-assessment component is particularly challenging for my ELLs as they do not know how to improve their own writing. Hence, I realized that I had to back up and first present them with exemplars to look at. My students need the practice of evaluating sample essays to understand what constitutes high, medium, and low essays. Without that understanding, it is very difficult for them to visualize how they can improve their own writing. Regarding the different components within a piece of writing, our school employs the six traits writing model. I had previously suspected that my students would struggle with sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions. However, I did not expect that my students needed guidance in the drafting stage with ideas. In retrospect, this could be due to the fact that it was their first time writing a persuasive essay on unfamiliar topics. I enjoy the process of guiding students, challenging their thinking, and formulating their own position on various issues. Thank you, again, for sharing your insights!

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