Thoughts on Developing a Writing Assessment

The focus of my teaching work of late has turned toward developing and administering a district wide writing assessment for middle school argument writing.  Amid warnings from the latest Rethinking Schools about all the extra baggage that makes Common Core implementation dangerous, like even higher stakes in testing and privatization, many of us on the ground are still working towards making something good out of what might be good.  The writing assessment we are crafting, like so many others being made in the likeness of the testing industry’s new Common Core assessments, involves a performance task requiring multiple sources students weave together as evidence to compose their own written argument.  It’s a tough task.  And we’re asking for teachers across disciplines to be involved in the endeavor with us: some English and Science teachers developed the test in consultation, teachers are administering it across the board, and most of the teaching staffs (including Science and History teachers, not only English) will be involved in the scoring process, learning to distinguish performance on various scales of a rubric.  The idea is to stimulate cross-disciplinary understanding and discussion, so that we’re all in the same boat.

My hopes are that teachers begin to give students credit for the sharp critical thinking they are capable of doing about problems of social, scientific, and cultural concern, and learn to express and argue with sophistication, nuance, and maturity across spheres.  I hope that all of this leads to teachers imagining engaging, cross-disciplinary units that involve interaction rhetorically with real-world problems and perhaps real-world audiences, cultivating civic voices and ethical commitments in the process of refining their linguistic repertoires. 

My fears are that teachers feel another wave of endeavors crammed down their throats without the time and space to formulate their own understandings, to take ownership and cultivate their own belief systems, and to hone practices that get students beyond surface understandings and procedural displays.  My fears are that students are being asked to do much, with the stick coming long before the carrot.  I am concerned about the ideology which attempts to drive teaching with evaluation, drive pedagogy with assessments, since evaluations and assessments often boil down to the most blunt and simplified versions of “the answers,” and what students need is complexity, individualization, and trust.  I tremble when I hear about computer-scored essays and merit pay schemes based on these assessments.

What teachers have to do (magically in the negative four hours of free time they have each day) is coordinated efforts of ownership, demonstrating that collaborative creation, scoring, and use of these assessment instruments by teachers for teaching is the only function that matters.  But it’s just impossible with all else that we have on our hands. Continue reading

Common Prayer app

I’ve been a fan of Common Prayer since it came out. It was an encouragement to pray with the saints around the works and throughout history, while aligning to what I think is the wheat among the tares of Christianity, inspiring a faithful and progressive discipleship. It’s a distillation of a lot of things I appreciate.
I admit it seems silly to pay $10 for an app of something freely available online and for which you already own the book. But sometimes you buy a ticket not because you couldn’t have otherwise seen the show but because it means you are committing to be there.
Thus far it has been sweet. I read with my imagination alive, imagining the prayer being led by my heroes if the faith, imagining confessions to God brought before the humble and broken gathered in church basements and simple communities, monasteries and airplane cabins, our hearts being searched by the same Spirit and yearning for righteousness to be revealed while grieving the collective and individual consequences of our idolatries, oversights of humanity, and reckless venality. The Our Father is new and old, every time.
If anyone out there is praying Common Prayer, I’m curious about your experience, your reflections on it, how you use it, how it changes you. And if you want to try, the app is pricey but is free.


My daughter turned three today. She woke up and said, “Happy birthday, myself.”
The last three years have been an all-consuming tumult of joy and disruption. I did not realize the depths of my self-centeredness until someone entered it who demanded or called for my attention in every moment. She is the joy of my life and worth every bit of trouble and the much, much more trouble I know is to come. She flits a spark of mirth and hearth that drives your legs in the bitter cold to push every step until you arrive safely at home, to protect her, to laugh beside her, to hang colors all over the walls with her.