Assessing with Storytelling: In-Class Essays

Timed-writes are an effective way to evaluate student progress throughout the term.

My class is 12 weeks long, ten if you don’t count Thanksgiving and finals week. The first week I don’t have students do much writing, especially in Spanish I. Instead I want them to listen and read. They need to get used to hearing the language, seeing it written out, and using it to communicate. I do, however, want to start to get a baseline for my students’ abilities, and so I have them begin to write about topics they are familiar with by the end of week 2.

In my Spanish I classes, this takes the form of a story summary under a constraint. During the week we learn, read, and discuss a story in the target language. On the last day of the week, students get five minutes to handwrite as much as possible in Spanish about that week’s story. In that time they write as much as they can without pausing to think about “correctness.” I see the same grammar mistakes you can expect to see on grammar tests, but I also see a more complete picture of their emerging out, even from the low students.

The idea behind this is twofold. First, the time constraint forces students to turn off their conscious mind and let the words bubble up naturally from their subconscious. This is what I’m most interested in seeing, since this is the language they are able to successfully recall and access, that is, the language they have acquired.

The second benefit of the timer is that of Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If we give students 20 minutes to do a summary, they will take the whole twenty minutes.

I grade these timed writes on word count because I’m not interested in the improving grammar from week to week, although I do see that progress. What I most care to assess here is that students make the expected progress in fluency (i.e. adjective agreement, subject-verb agreement, verb morphology, etc.) by the end of the quarter. I don’t want them to ignore grammar entirely, but I tell them to do their best with grammar and spelling. Not only do students write more this way, but they also write better when I tell them I’m not grading for the things that most concern them: grammar and spelling.

The word count is a moving target. At the beginning of the quarter a student that writes 50+ words in 5 minutes earns a 25/25, 40-49 words earns a 22.5/25, 30-39 earns a 20/25, 25-29 earns a 17.5, and < 25 earns a 15/25.

Depending on the results, I challenge students to push themselves. The next week I might make 60+ words a 25/25, 50-59 a 22.5/25, and so on. By the end of the quarter I expect a good number of students to write 90+ words in 5 minutes. Many students end up writing 150+ words in five minutes. That’s more than I can write in that amount of time.

I play the timeline of this sliding scale by ear. That means that at any given time I have some sections that need 75+ words for a 25/25, and others that 60+. This makes total sense to me because it allows for differentiated instruction. Not every class will progress uniformly, and this is especially true for a language class.

I love this assessment because I can track student progress throughout the quarter. I can see some students make leaps in their abilities and I can see the steady progress of others.

Another reason I love this assessment is that students find it hard to cheat. They only have five minutes and are graded on word count. If they stop to Google Translate a word, they’re not going to get a good grade. This is, of course, by design. The time constraint takes the temptation of translation away from students and allows me to see their true ability.

Yet another reason I love this assessment is that I can put students to work self-grading their work. I put the grading scale up on the board, and they count up their words and write their number and grade on the top of the page. Chalk this up as another win for systematizing the grading process.

I still read their work, but now I get to read it for entertainment, not for grading purposes. Naturally, I still offer feedback to anyone who asks for it, but in my experience this rarely ever happens. Occasionally someone will come up and ask for feedback, and I am more than happy to go over their essay with them.

If it’s possible, I love this assessment for yet another reason: students re-read the story we made up in class, sometimes a few more times. As they prepare for the timed-write, they seek out comprehensible input. Not only that, but it sets the expectation that they will need to recall the information in the story at a later date, which washes back to the next time we co-create a story together. It’s a positive feedback loop that leads to increased engagement on the next story, which leads to improved recall on the next timed-write, which leads to the endorphin rough of successfully learning something new, ad infinitum.

This is a phenomenal assessment tool for the storytelling classroom.

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