Thursday, January 3, 2008

Open-Ended Questions

As a high school English teacher, it is my responsibility to evaluate students' reading comprehension skills and to try to encourage them to think about literature at more critical levels. As a teacher of high school juniors, I am also tasked with helping my students to prepare for the language arts sections of the New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). These are all large responsibilities and they certainly felt overwhelming during my first two years of teaching.

During those two trying years, I felt pretty certain about how to check for reading comprehension: assign quizzes after each night's reading homework. During my first two years of teaching, students completed quizzes like the one you will find here for Acts I and II of MacBeth. All of the quizzes featured straightforward multiple choice questions. They were easy to grade and, for the most part, easy for students to complete correctly. Although these quizzes do check for reading comprehension, they never require students to demonstrate any of the higher orders of thought, like analysis and synthesis. All of the questions simply ask for recall. Essentially, during the first two years of teaching, my classwork followed a pattern for each text that we covered in class. Students would read for homework, then come in the next day and complete a reading check quiz. After enough repetition of that pattern, they would finish the text and I would assign higher order thinking questions, usually in the form of a test or a persuasive essay. This method also served as my system of HSPA preparation.

Occasionally, instead of giving the students a reading check quiz to complete, I would assign them a written homework assignment to complete along with the previous night's reading. Then, at the beginning of the next class, I would walk around and check the assignment during the Do-Now activity. Homework assigned in such fashion is wide open to cheating. Students would wait until homeroom or lunch time of the due date, then simply copy someone else's paper. They would simply hope that I did not notice. I caught a sizable amount of identical papers and assigned zeros accordingly. The zeros don't solve the problem, though, they just add to the frustration. Additionally, there is the bigger problem that students simply are not learning because they are not completing the work.

By April of my second year of teaching, I had grown frustrated with both my homework assignments and my quizzes. I needed to create a better system. Enter the Guided Question. Each night, for every reading assignment, I gave the students a guided question. I asked them to read with the guided question in mind, then take notes on the question. At the beginning of the following class period, they would be responsible for writing out the answer on a piece of paper and submitting it for a grade. I graded the questions on a 3-2-1-0 scale, with 3 being a perfect score. This eliminated the cheating, and it forced students to actually complete their homework assignments. That was an improvement. The questions also forced the students to think on higher levels, another improvement. However, my grading rubric was poor, and the students still were not getting dedicated HSPA preparation. Therefore, despite the new system, I remained dissatisfied.

At the beginning of my third year, I finally put a new system into place, one that fit all of my needs, and fixed the outstanding issues. I changed the Guided Questions to Open-Ended Questions. I modeled these questions directly after the ones found on the HSPA test. They follow a simple format:

Stem of the Question which provides some basic background information:

-- A recall question, one which asks the students to IDENTIFY some elements from the reading.

-- An analysis question, one which asks the students to EXPLAIN the effects of some element from the reading.

The quote "Use information from the [text] to support your response." (On the HSPA, the writers use "selection" instead of "text.")

This simple format proved to be an immense help to the structure of my class, and to my ability to do my own job. I could ask one of these questions for every reading assignment. Students would come into class the next day and complete the question as the Do-Now activity. I would collect the responses and assign homework credit. The rubric was ready made for me, as I used the NJ HSPA Open-Ended Question rubric. Students were now preparing for the HSPA, demonstrating reading comprehension, and applying higher order thinking skills. What a beautiful solution to a complicated problem. If you click here, you can view the improved 2007-2008 MacBeth Open-Ended questions.

This system worked so well, I even adapted it into film viewing guides. Below, you can download the 2006-2007 viewing guide to the film Raisin in the Sun. Then, you can compare it to the much improved 2007-2008 viewing guide for the same film. The Open-Ended Question format really helped to bring a great degree of structure to my class, while simultaneously helping me to meet my educational goals.

Raisin in the Sun 2006-2007 Viewing Guide

Raisin in the Sun 2007-2008 Viewing Guide

Written: 12/15/07

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