Today, I spend the first 20 minutes of class talking to my students about a writing assessment they are taking in a couple of weeks. I just found out this assessment is coming up so I need to have a conversation with my students about it. This is the English Placement Test for the local community and state colleges. My students get an opportunity to take this assessment in their English class as eleventh graders. If they earn a passing score, they are considered to be ready to tackle college level work. If they do not earn a passing score, they can take it again next year before enrolling in college courses, but they may be expected to pay to take the assessment. If they still do not pass it, they will have to enroll in a remedial English class as college freshmen. The portion of the assessment they are taking in a couple of weeks is the essay portion. The requirements of the essay are in line with the type of writing expected in the Common Core. Because of this, I am shaping the writing assignment planned for the excerpt we are reading from Thoreau’s Walden to match the writing task from this assessment. This will give students much needed practice for this assessment and for writing in general. This unit begins with a response to the last text we read in the Transcendentalist unit and then we move on to writing responses to other prompts covering a variety of topics, which will prepare them for the assessment they will be taking.
I announce to students that they are taking the writing portion of the English Placement Test in a couple of weeks and explain the importance of it. Many of my students enroll in the local community and state colleges so they are very interested in this conversation and want to know the details. We have a conversation about the importance of being ready for college work upon high school graduation.
I then explain what the writing task for the assessment will be. Students will get a quote by a given author and they will be asked to do three things: explain what the quote means, take a position on the argument made in the quote, and support their position with evidence from their personal experience, observations or readings. The writing task incorporates informational and argumentative writing, two types of writing in the Common Core. Once I have answered all questions students bring up, we go back to revisit the assignment where students are analyzing an excerpt form Thoreau’s Walden. The details of this assignment are in this earlier lesson. I tell students that the next part I am adding to this assignment is in line with the task they are expected to perform for the assessment in two weeks, meaning they will be explaining the meaning of the quote, taking a position and backing it up with evidence.
I point out to students that the assignment they started in the earlier lesson has covered one of the three tasks, explaining the meaning of the quote selected. Today they will do the second task, which is to take a position. They are taking a position on the idea Thoreau is communicating in the quote we selected on that day. What he is communicating is his desire to “live life deliberately” and to “front only the essential facts of life.” He communicates the fact that this was his purpose for deciding to live in the woods by himself for over two years. The quote is not calling for the reader to take a position on the idea communicated but I decided to find a way of helping students find something to agree or disagree with so that they can practice this skill. I explained that Thoreau is not suggesting we all do what he did. He was a Transcendentalist who believed in people’s individual power to decide the course of your life. I tell students that I am not asking them to take a position on a proposal for all of us to do what Thoreau did. Rather, I am asking them to take a position on the value of seeking isolation in the wilderness in order to learn the “essential facts of life.” In other words, their position will support the idea that finding oneself alone amongst nature is the best way of learning about life. I give students a few minutes to begin drafting a position on their paper.
I interrupt them after they all have at least a couple of sentences written to ask them to share their thinking at this point. A few students share out. All students who share out agree with the quote. I invite disagreement because it is healthy for us to explore different perspectives. In this video, a student reads her opinion of the quote. Some students look like they disagree but they are not willing to share. It is difficult to go against the flow. I address this by saying that it is important to hear different perspectives and that those who disagree will be contributing something valuable to the discussion. One student admits that he partially disagrees with the quote because he doesn’t quite understand why anyone would want to leave the comfort of the place where you live and your family. Another student suggests that there are people who may have different opinions of nature and may not be able to learn much from being immersed in it. I thank them for sharing and invite all to consider both sides. I give them a few more minutes to finish writing their position. This is one student's position on this quote.
I have students read the second paragraph from the excerpt we have been reading from Thoreau’s Walden, "from Where I Lived and What I Lived For." We are following the same process we did when reading the first section:
“Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”
This student paper shows the steps we have taken to make meaning of this excerpt, though it will not be completed until tomorrow’s lesson. At the beginning of the next class period, students will have completed the first two sections in this paper. I do not want them to attempt to work on the written explanation of the quote for homework tonight because I know they need to engage in discussion first in order to make meaning of it. I don’t want them to show up tomorrow with random explanations that miss the point.