By Mark Heintz


I have two main focuses as I write this weekly blog. Two driving questions that I have in my mind while making decisions.  They are:

  • How do I know if my students know? 
  • How do I get them to know if they know?  

Whether that is a skill or content, I want to know if they know it.   I no longer think it is acceptable for me to guess or get a feeling on whether or not they know it. Getting the students to know if they know it is downright hard, but I am really attempting to get to a point where the students can recognize their understandings or progress on their skill levels and content knowledge.  Therefore, the purpose of this year of reflection is to see how I make progress towards these two goals and elicit feedback from staff, students, and hopefully people who follow along on the journey.  You can read how last week went here.

Week Twenty-nine: Answer the Question

This week the content focus was primarily on World War I. Here were the standards for this week:

  1. Analyze the responses to the influenza pandemic of 1918.

This week’s skill focus was still centered on analyzing charts, maps, and texts and pulling evidence from documents to support a claim.

  1. Write one cause/effect, and one comparative short response that reflects an understanding of essential content.
  2. Analyze charts, maps, graphs, and texts.
  3. Write a thesis statement, contextualize a prompt, and draw evidence from two documents to support the thesis. 

Provide Specific Evidence: 

This semester, I am including, or trying to include student’s perspective on the week.  Last week, I brought in a few students to help me plan the week.  The experience led to the implementation of many powerful changes; therefore, this week, I asked the whole class to help plan the week.  I posted a discussion in Schoology that prompted each student to respond.  Here are a few of their responses:
Student A: 

We need more work on perfecting our DBQ to get at least 4/7 on the AP test, also we need to go over the structure of the short response and what we need to include in the short response to get 3 points every question. Also, maybe some practice content questions from old AP tests to help us get more comfortable with the multiple choice portion of the AP test.

Student B:

I think we need more practice DBQ’s, in my opinion. Along with that, more practice on the short answer. If we write DBQ’s this week, we should write with a partner and try to exploit each other’s strengths.

Student C:

Individual writing for sure + work on grouping the documents by ourselves with you checking occasionally to make sure we’re on the right track. Sometimes when we analyze documents all together I think to myself that I would have never come up with that by myself.

Student D: 

I like the idea of working through a DBQ together in class and practicing the short answer. However, what I would like is a DBQ that we can work on completely by ourselves either at home or on a couple of quiet, workshop days.


From these student responses, I changed the whole week. The first change was to the beginning of class.  Each day, I started with an environmental question, but the daily question rotated through time periods.  The goal was to focus part of each day on the short answer and how they approach each question.  Towards the end of the week, I had the students do a more formal short answer question that I evaluated.

Here is some of the lead-up work to the short answer.


In the above picture, I the students brainstormed ideas centered around the environment in the early twentieth century.

Another day, the students drew out their understandings of environmental changes in the nineteenth century.  
The second major change I made due to the student feedback was centered around the document based question.  A lot of students felt they needed to be more independent but still valued peer feedback.  To satisfy both, I took an idea that I got from Hazel Mason on using digital student portfolios.  The students created a Google Document and shared it with me.  For each stage of writing, a peer gave the student feedback.  After they received feedback and made any necessary changes, they took a picture of their work and placed it in the document to be checked by me.

The process allowed me to see the peer feedback and gauge the current ability levels of the student writing and the one giving feedback.

Most of the feedback prompted the students to fix their writing without the need of me.

Reflection and Impact:

I saw tremendous improvement in the students’ ability to tackle an environmental short answer question.  I keep forgetting how much time it takes to look at questions outside their comfort level and approach it from different vantage points.  After five days of attempting to shift their thinking about the environment, they started to naturally change their approach to the questions.  Without my prompting, they thought from multiple perspectives.

As for the digital portfolios, I LOVED them!  I want to implement it earlier in the year next year.  Mainly because the students could then see the progress of their writing throughout the year.  I know writing portfolios are not a new thing, but they are for me.  I love that they made the students learning visible and allowed for a great medium for feedback from peers and me.

The biggest improvement from using the portfolios was in the students’ ability to connect two or more documents to each other.  Normally, the students more or less listed documents.  They would merely say what the document was and what was in it. Then do the same for the next document.   I am always attempting to get the students to have the documents relate to each other through the use of qualifiers in their writing. After the changes, I know the students have improved in that area of their writing.  Here is a sample of that in action.

One downside to the portfolio process was that it took a lot of class time. It took four days of the week and most students did not finish the essay.  From that vantage point, it seems like a failure.  However, I contend that the time was worth it.  The feedback the students gave to each other was worth it alone.  For next time, I need to have something at the end of class to break up with the writing process.  The process required a lot of mental focus and exhausted most of them in a very short period of time.  I hope to have an end of a class activity that allows the students to talk about the process with each other.  
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