Monday, June 11, 2007

how we pass the WASL

In response to a previous post, drpezz asks,
How does your school prepare your students for the WASL? Do you have an overall philosophy, tendency, or set of ideals guiding your teaching?

What about you personally?
I don't presume to speak for all the teachers at my school. However, I do know what's worked for me, and what's worked for my fellow teachers in CHS's English department. I'd imagine others have similar strategies. I'll focus on writing, because it's been at the forefront of my teaching over the past few months.

1. Philosophically and practically, success on the WASL is not the overall goal.
I believe that good writing is good writing, WASL be damned. If students aim for perfection through a process of constant revision and reflection, they'll become better writers than the baseline the WASL demands.

When I create or assess a writing assignment, I rarely think, "This'll be great prep for the WASL." I'm usually more concerned about the differing interests and abilities of the students in front of me. I want their writing to be authentic and thoughtful, and so I repeat this mantra: "Everything written is a work in progress." Every major assignment goes through three or four drafts, and gets feedback from peers and from me. We focus on narrative development one day, punctuation another, depending on what arises.

2. Even though I don't teach to the test, I teach how the test works.
At least once during the 9th grade and 10th grade years, students read WASL samples and score them according to the WASL rubric. They then debate their scoring in small groups, and lastly in a whole class discussion. They're harsh, even harsher than the WASL demands. (This is good, and it just might prove Point #1.)

3. Departmentally, we focus on WASL scoring at least once annually.
CHS English teachers score OSPI-provided practice essays using the WASL rubric, argue vociferously about the scoring, and then swap class sets and grade each others' students. It gives us a fresh perspective on our own writing instruction, and gives our students a less biased professional judgment of their abilities, without the stress.

4. Across departments, teachers share information.
For a couple years our school has focused on writing across the curriculum, with a measure of success. ("We're ready for math across the curriculum," a calculus teacher noted. I completely agree.) English teachers talked to various departments about assessing writing in any subject area. The administration provided funding for an afterschool writing lab, and, more important, reduced class sizes and a curriculum overhaul in the 9th grade year. (We'll see how that turns out in '08, but we're optimistic.) We presented our progress to the school, as did other departments that have undergone massive changes, in collaboration times set aside by our administration.

Hope that's what you were looking for, drpezz. Next question?


TeacherRefPoet said...

Nice, Jim. If I throw a couple of pennies into your font of wisdom:

1. Do what I'm going to do anyway. Teach what I'm going to teach. When teaching and assessing writing, focus hard (as always) on organization and backing opinions with evidence.

2. After doing that for a while, pass out the state-provided exemplars: a one, several twos, several threes, and a couple of fours.

Ask for the key difference between the two and the three, and the three and the four. Kids usually land here:

A two isn't organized into coherent paragraphs, and doesn't use specific examples. A three does one or the other. A four does both.

Check it out. It's 95% true.

I then write a dull, pallid, WASL-esque prompt (this in December or so). I grade it almost exclusively on organization and use of specific examples. I tell the kids I'll only take a minute or two to grade it, as though I were a WASL grader. Anyone who falls short of 3-level in either gets some individual love from me.

100% of my kids passed the WASL in reading and writing last year. I'd be a fool to take all the credit for that--they had great junior high teachers, elementary school teachers, and parents--but I do think this process demystifies the writing WASL without detracting from my curriculum for more than two or three days.

Jim Anderson said...

Thanks, TRP--those are almost exactly the parts I left out of my summary. I agree also about all the teaching that's gone before. They're mostly ready by the time they reach me. (They have to unlearn a few things, though--"Step Up" crap, mostly.)

The banality of the WASL prompts is so sad. After several freshfolks complained about the topic, we had a nice chat about faking enthusiasm for anything. Not that I would ever do that.