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Guest post: The Power of Co-Construction in the High School English Classroom

By Jaime Marcakis, High School English Teacher

Why haven’t I been using this strategy all along?

Like most things for me in teaching, I just didn’t know that there was another way. And, while I thought this concept made sense, would it be something that seemed good in theory but would not be practical?

My students would not want to look at the language of the standards. I don’t even want to look at the language of the standards. But, like other aspects of life, I know that finding excuses and not taking risks will result in little growth.

If I want my students to take risks, I need to be brave enough to do it myself.

This year has brought so many challenges, but it has also encouraged me to think differently and try new things.

Did I perfectly execute Co-Constructing Success Criteria my first time around? Probably not. Were my students riveted by discussing standards? Not really. But, I could tell early on that it was going to work and be a success. You just know it in your soul when you strike teacher gold, right? You can just feel it.

After listening to Starr Sackstein explain the steps to Co-Constructing Success Criteria on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast, I halted my current poetry unit plans and set aside a few days to give it a go.

So, while talking about standards and criteria was not something that I think my students would list as their top five favorite things to do, I also recognize that for all of them, this was their first experience with it. I chose six standards for students to rewrite three reading and two writing. Most of these standards were ones that we had worked on previously WITHOUT Co-construction, so some of the skills and terms were familiar. But, what I realized was that even though the words theme, analysis and claim had been repeated so many times.

The silence told me everything I needed to know. I had covered it, but they didn’t really KNOW it. This was helpful information.

I cheated a little. I had highlighted the verbs (skills), nouns (concepts), and some vague vocabulary. I just wanted to jump in, and I knew in the hybrid environment that everything takes about three times as long.

Would I do this again? I might.

But, eventually, I would like students to do the entire process of breaking up the standards. Students rewrote the standards on the Google doc. I added some comments as they wrote if I noticed language seemed unclear or if a term (like claim, theme, or analysis) was used without being defined, or if they left a part of the standard out. Then, I asked them to read the peer group below their work and do as I was doing. Could they understand it? Did they miss anything? This process helped to ensure everyone was understanding.

Next, we read the revised versions of the standards to make sure everyone understood and looked at the assignment directions. As students annotated, I reflected. Where did I suggest that their paper should have transitional words and phrases to connect ideas? It was in the standards but not my assignment. Where did I emphasize that summary and analysis were two different concepts? I didn’t.

The fact that I had invisible expectations became more clear to me.

After annotating the assignment, we looked at a student mentor text and listed the positive attributes. If they missed something I thought was important then I asked what do you notice about X? What makes X powerful? Honestly, I didn’t have to do that much work. Together the students found it.

It was easy to use those findings to create a list of criteria and to then discuss what was needed to follow the guidelines and meet complete status and what would be nice to have.

Students appreciated and recognized that so many aspects go into good writing that it would be a relief to have some items that they prioritize on the nice to have list.

Do you really want a list of ten things to do to meet criteria? Nope.

I also pointed out that other classes mentioned punctuating quotes or sophisticated word choices as nice to-haves, would anyone mind if we added it to the list?

Students were willing to add these to the list knowing that striving for them would be important but would not prevent them from meeting criteria and earning complete status.

I took the list of criteria from all five of my 9th-grade classes and created the rubric that describes proficiency/completion for this assignment:

Admittedly, while there were moments of painful silence during the process. My beliefs in this process were affirmed when I started to read through the Google form responses. One student wrote in her form:

“I really liked the Co-construction activity we did in class. I feel like it made it, even more, clearer about what I have to do(criteria). I feel like if you could do a mini-lesson about analysis discussion with your writing; that would help me better.”

And, another student commented:

“In my previous analysis writing, I have struggled with getting evidence that supports my claim enough. I think that for this project I will have an easier time though. But if I had to choose that would be the one thing.”

The Google form was a time saver. They told me exactly what they needed. Most skills I had anticipated, but some I had not. For example, one student asked about a mini-lesson on the memo that they would write at the end to self-reflect. Although this was not related to the criteria, it was the feedback they noticed when they looked at previous assignments. Reviewing the memo is something that I keep telling myself I will work on or set time aside to look at more closely. This student’s request tells me that my teacher senses something, and they do need that support. I could also see that explaining how the evidence links to the claim was the most popular request, and it’s what I also think is the skill most have the least experience with.

We are on the same page.

Now, I am headed into the unit with more focus. Students know when we do mini-lessons that it is because it’s what they or their classmates asked for. It gives everything more meaning and purpose.

Will I do this again? YES. Just like I feel about going gradeless, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. It just makes sense. How can I go back? Why would I not want students at the center of their own learning? I hope to start this practice at the start of the year, and I can only imagine what great things will happen. I can’t wait to get to the point where students can fully design their own assessments because they understand the criteria. While this was just a baby step for me, I know it’s going to open the door to more possibilities that are going to make teaching what I want it to be and make learning more meaningful for my students.

Jaime Marcakis (@MrsMarcakis) is a traditional turned gradeless teacher with a passion for finding ways to be a better and more effective educator. She is currently a 9th grade English teacher at Downingtown East High School in Exton, PA.


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