Saturday, October 18, 2014

How short is too short?

Pre-assessment is a tool for teachers to learn what their students know about a unit before beginning the actual instruction. In my experience pre-assessment is very valuable. It can help a teacher know where to adjust instruction and who in the class might need more help in the coming days. It also gives the students a little peek at what is coming and can help them to prepare for what is next. You might only think of pre-tests (like you had in middle school algebra class) as the only form a pre-assessment can take but in actuality they can take many forms. Discussions, written responses, KWL charts (know, want to know, and learned), graffiti walls (where students artistically show what they know about a given topic) are just a few forms that pre-assessment can take.

In a recent class I designed a two week unit plan for teaching about flash fiction. This is a form of creative prose writing that is only limited by size. The author tries to tell a story that is complete and interesting in a short amount of words. The length depends on the place you might publish or in my students case the whims of their teacher. My unit spends 4 days learning and researching about flash fiction as a genre and reading as much flash fiction as possible. The last 6 days are about practicing what they have learned by creating lots of their own flash fiction and then finally using one finally short-short story to show their skills in writing flash fiction.

The beginning of my unit has a simple and informal pre-assessment. I write am actual piece of flash fiction on the board and as they come into class I ask students to write down their reaction to the story and if it is a story and why. Why don’t you give this pre-assessment a shot yourself? The story, attributed to Hemingway is posted on my “board” below.

Let me know how you do on the pre-assessment in the comments below.

To see how this assessment might work for real students and not just in my head I asked several family members and friends to give it a try for me. Thankfully I have awesome people in my life who didn’t mind giving me some time to test this out.

The reactions were fun to read and I was glad I gave this a shot. All but one “student” thought that the writing on the board was not a story. They identified it as an advertisement. Several “students” pointed out that it was lacking a beginning, middle, and end which a story must have. They all thought it was to short. Only one person thought that it could be a story because it got her to think and imagine. She was interested in knowing more and wished the author had kept writing.

These are the responses I was expecting and also wanting. It was great that they could argue that the story was incomplete and missing essential parts. The idea that this was a story made them just a bit mad and they felt compelled to explain why they were mad. My goal with this assessment it two fold. First I wanted to get my students thinking about length when related to a story, and this was certainly accomplished. Second I wanted to know if any students had experience with very short fiction and I believe my one “student” who was intrigued knew where the lesson was headed. It also doesn’t hurt that this story is so “offensively” short that when students later see a story with just 200 words they are more willing to think of it as a story because it is so much longer than this one.

In the end this pre-assessment did what I wanted it to and will be a good fit for this unit. I also showed some of the “students” my rubric for the end of the unit portfolio. They all understood the things that would be required in the unit and felt that it was fair. I hadn’t ever thought of showing students rubrics this far in advance but I liked doing it this way. The students will know and understand right away what is expected of them and what to focus on in the unit. I will certainly be showing rubrics to my students early more often.  

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