Workshop: Writing a Good Standard
In the "workshops" sprinkled throughout this website I will attempt to capture (and model) the process I follow when assisting someone or some group in developing standards or authentic tasks or rubrics. For this workshop, I will begin with an initial draft of a standard and work with an imaginary educator towards a final product. You can "play along at home" by imagining how you would respond to the educator or to me.
Somewhere in the Smoky Mountains .... (hey, it's my workshop; I'll host it where I like!)
Educator: How is this for a standard:
I will teach my students what the main themes of Romeo and Juliet are.
Me: First, standards describe what students should know and do, not what the teacher will do. So, standards typically begin, "Students will ...."
Educator: So, I could change it to Students will know the main themes of Romeo and Juliet.
Me: Yes, that would be a more appropriate way to begin your standard. Standards also should describe observable and measurable behavior on the student's part so that we can assess it. "Knowing" is not something you can directly observe. So, ask yourself "how could they show me they know?"
Educator: Well, I could have them write a paper explaining the main themes. Maybe I could write a standard saying
Students will write a paper explaining the main themes of Romeo and Juliet.
Me: Can you observe "explaining"?
Educator: Yes, I think so.
Me: Yes, so that verb is a good one for a standard. Are there other ways a student could explain the themes to you besides in a paper?
Educator: Sure. They could do it in a speech, or a poster or on an exam.
Me: Good. You don't want to limit yourself in how you might assess this understanding. So, you usually want to avoid including an assignment or task in your standard. Otherwise, you always have to assign a paper to meet that standard.
Educator: I could say
Students will explain the themes of Romeo and Juliet.
Me: Yes, that is observable and clear. It effectively describes the student learning you said you wanted at the beginning. But let's go back to the main question. You always want to ask yourself "why would I want my students to meet this standard?" Why do you want them to be able to explain the themes of Romeo and Juliet?
Educator: Well, I want my students to be able to pick up a piece of literature and be able to tell what the author's main ideas are, and to find some meaning in it for them.
Me: So, you would like them to do that for literature other than Romeo and Juliet as well?
Educator: Yes, we just always teach Romeo and Juliet.
Me: So, you want to identify what really matters to you, what you really want the students to come away with. Typically, that will go beyond one piece of literature or one author. So, you want to write a standard more generically so that you can choose from a variety of literature and still develop the same knowledge and skills in your students.
Educator: I see. That makes sense. I could say
Students will be able to identify themes across a variety of literature.
Me: Very good. But now I am going to be tough on you. I imagine there are some fourth grade teachers who would tell me they have that same standard for their readers. Is the skill of "identifying a theme" really something your ninth and tenth grade students are learning in your classes or do they come to you with that ability?
Educator: Well, they should have it when they get to me, but many of them still can't identify a theme very well. And, now I am asking them to do it with a more sophisticated piece of literature than fourth graders read.
Me: So, it is certainly appropriate that your students continue to review and develop that skill. But would you hope that your students understanding of theme goes beyond simply being able to identify it in a piece?
Educator: Sure. I would like my students to understand the relationship now between theme and character development and plot and setting and how all of those work to shape the piece.
Me: And why does any of that matter? Why should they learn that?
Educator: Well, like I said before, I want them to be able to pick up a play or story and make sense of what the author is trying to communicate so they can make some personal connections to it and hopefully make some more sense of their lives. Also, I hope they realize that literature is another way they can communicate with others. So, by learning the techniques of Shakespeare and others they can learn how to express themselves effectively and creatively. Maybe those should be my standards, making sense of the world and communicating effectively, or are those too broad?
Me: Those are too broad for standards. Those sound like your overall goals for your course. But you could not easily assess such goals in one or two measures. You want to break them down into several standards that capture the key components of your goals and that are amenable to assessment. So, let's go back to your statement about the relationship of theme to the other elements of literature. It's not that being able to identify a theme is a useless skill. But you want your students to go beyond that. How can we frame what you said as a standard?
Educator: How about Students will explain the relationships between theme, character, setting ...
Do I need to list all the literary elements I cover?
Me: You could. Or, if that might change from one year to another you could say something like
Students will explain the relationships between several literary elements (e.g., theme, character, setting, plot) ....
Educator: You can do that in a standard?
Me: Yes, you can do anything you want in writing a standard as long as it captures significant learning you value and is written in a manner that can be assessed.
Educator: But there are some elements, like theme, that I would always want them to understand.
Me: Then you can say "several literary elements including theme, character, setting, and plot ...."
Educator: That's better. So, how about this?
Students will explain relationships between and among literary elements including character, plot, setting, theme, conflict and resolution and their influence on the effectiveness of the literary piece.
Me: Very nice! Is it realistic?
Educator: Yes, I think so.
Me: Is it something worth learning?
Me: Can you assess it?
Educator: Oh yes, there would be a lot of ways. So.... are we done?
Me: Yes. You have developed an excellent standard.
Educator: That was a lot of work.
Me: Yes. It is not easy to write good standards. But, after you have done a few the rest will come more easily.
Educator: (with a touch of sarcasm) Oh, sure.