3 Websites Where You Can Find Complex Informational Texts

As many teachers shift to the Common Core Standards, they are attempting to incorporate more complex texts and more informational/nonfiction texts into their curriculum. If you are asking yourself, “What is a complex text for my students?” check out this blog post I wrote explaining text complexity.

Many teachers are discovering that there are a range of websites that offer informational texts available at various Lexile levels. Three of my favorites are:

1. The Smithsonian Tween Tribune

The Smithsonian Tween Tribune is a free resource for teachers and students. It has a huge collection of articles written at various Lexile levels. The articles also come with a quiz to assess comprehension and students can post a comment about what they read.

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2. Newsela

Newsela has a growing collection of articles on a range of topics, including the most current events. It’s free to access and read the articles at any Lexile level; however, teachers who want to annotate articles or track student progress need to pay for the Pro version.

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3. CommonLit

CommonLit organizes the content on its site by theme. Teachers search for a theme related to what they are teaching (e.g. fear, resilience, love or greed). Once they’ve selected a theme, they can view the texts that have been paired with that theme at a range of reading levels from elementary into high school. The texts include everything from famous speeches, historical documents, news articles to poems and stories.

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If you have additional online resources you use to find complex informational texts, please post a comment and share them!

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Grading for Mastery and Redesigning My Gradebook

For the last two years, I’ve been increasingly frustrated with the traditional approach to assessing students and reporting grades. I want my students to value learning, not the accumulation of points. Unfortunately, I feel like school is akin to a Pacman game where students are myopically focused on gobbling up points and, as a result, miss the point of learning entirely.

Redesigning My Gradebook

This year I decided to overhaul my gradebook and assess students based on their mastery of particular skills, also referred to as standards-based grading. Instead of organizing my gradebook using traditional categories (e.g. homework, classwork, projects, tests, and projects), I identified the main skills we would be focusing on developing in this class and used those to create my gradebook categories.

 Last Year                                                                   This Year

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Because my students create everything from digital stories to digital portfolios to RSA animation, I also included “Creative Design” and “Academic Engagement” categories to cover additional skills that are crucial to their success.

Don’t Grade Everything

In the past, students received points for almost every activity they completed in class. This led to an enormous number of grades in my gradebook, but it did not provide real insight into how much they were actually learning. This approach to grading created a disconnect between a student’s level of mastery and his/her grade.

Much of the work we do in class is focused on learning and practicing specific skills. During these activities, students should feel that it’s okay to struggle, or even fail. That is part of the learning process. If everything they do is collected and given a grade, students don’t have the time or space they need to really learn. It’s my job to support them during this phase of learning by providing meaningful feedback and support. My energy is better spent working with them in small groups or one-on-one in these moments instead of collecting massive stacks of paper to grade and enter.

It’s important to explain the rationale behind this shift in assessment and grading to students, so they understand the importance of the work they do in class – even if that work doesn’t receive a grade. Again, the focus needs to be on learning not the accumulation of points. I explain that certain activities are designed to help them practice and hone skills which will be assessed at a later date by a writing assignment, quiz/test, or project. Each activity they do in class and at home is designed to continually build their skill sets.

Entering Grades in Relation to Specific Skills

In the past, I entered grades in a way that worked for me. Although I used a detailed rubric to grade their essays and projects, I only entered the total score into the gradebook. So, an argumentative essay would be entered as a point value out of 100. A student might earn an 80/100, but a parent looking at his/her child’s grade wouldn’t know exactly what their child did well or what they need to work on. As I reflect back on it, I doubt my gradebook really made sense to my students or their parents.

I redesigned my gradebook with the goal of helping my students and their parents better understand exactly where they are succeeding and where they are struggling. My hope is that this would make it easier for students to focus on the areas where they were struggling and for parents to better support their children.

Now when I am entering the grades for an essay, I enter each individual element that I am assessing from the rubric as a separate score. For example, an argumentative essay on the novel Of Mice and Men might have the following entries in the gradebook:

  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Claim
  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Quality of Evidence and Citations
  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Depth of Analysis
  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Strength of Rebuttal
  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Conclusion
  • Of Mice and Men Argumentative Essay: Spelling, Grammar, & Formal Writing Norms

If each element is entered separately, the student can see how he or she did in relation to each skill. Then they can focus their energy on developing the specific skills they are struggling with.

Teachers can decide to allocate different amounts of points to different elements or assign them different weights in the gradebook depending on the difficulty of the skill being assessed. That’s totally up to the teacher.

Grading for Mastery Using a 4 Point Scale

After an enlightening conversation with Jon Weller, another English teacher in the North Bay, and exploring the work done by Robert Marzano, I decided to use a 4 point scale to assess where my students are on the road to mastering a skill.

  • 4 = advanced
  • 3 = proficient
  • 2 = basic
  • 1 = below basic

In his book Formative Assessment & Standards-Based Grading, Robert Marzano breaks down several examples of what it looks like to assess students using a 4 point scale. On his website, Marzano provides a generic scale to help educators think about what each point value should represent.

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A student who earns a 4 “goes beyond what was taught.” A student who earns a 3 demonstrates a strong knowledge of what is explicitly taught. A student who earns a 2 shows a grasp of the simpler concepts and may have errors or omissions when it comes to the more complex concepts taught. A student who earns a 1 only demonstrates a partial understanding of simpler concepts taught (Marzano 2006).

If individual teachers are using a 4 point scale to assess individual skills and the entire school is not shifting to a standards-based approach to grading, they may want to reference a translation scale that turns that 4 point scale score into a percentage score.

Here is a conversion chart based on a recommendation by Robert J. Marzano and Tammy Heflebower in their article “Grades That Show What Students Know” (2011).

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As I continue to make this shift in my own teaching and assessment practice, I will continue to blog and share both the successes and challenges of shifting from traditional grades to a focus on mastery in relation to specific skills. I am by no means an expert on this topic, but I am excited to see how this shift will impact the learning happening in my classroom. If you have resources or experiences with standards-based grading or grading with mastery in mind, please post a comment and share! I’d love to learn from other educators doing this.

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Don’t Waste the First Day of School

The first day of school is an opportunity. It’s a chance to let students know what they can expect from you and your class. Will the class be teacher centered or student centered? Will they work in isolation or in collaborative groups? Will they be challenged or not?

Unfortunately, many teachers spend the first day of school reading their syllabus to their students and explaining all of the classroom norms and rules. It isn’t that I think this information is unimportant, but the reality is that most students are so inundated with information on the first day of school they won’t remember a fraction of what you tell them. Students are more likely to remember the way they felt in your class…engaged, bored, excited.

This year as I was preparing for my own first day, I realized…my 9th and 10th grade students are perfectly capable of reading, so why would I spent 20 minutes of this precious first day reading to them? So, I didn’t.

10 Questions 

At the start of class, I check schedules and note absences while students tell me about themselves. I do not spend time calling roll. While I silently circulate checking their schedules, students answer 10 questions about themselves on the inside of a big index card. Then they fold the index cards in half and write their names on the front so I can begin learning them.

10 Questions

What’s Your Learning Style Quiz

They move right from the 10 questions activity to an online quiz titled “What’s Your Learning Style?” This 20 question quiz ends by telling students what their learning style is, broken down into three categories: auditory, visual, and tactile. Students love taking online quizzes, so they enjoy the experience and I get to know their learning styles! Once they’ve completed the quiz, I ask them to write their learning style quiz results on the back of their index cards.

Learning Styles

Socrative Pop Culture Space Race

Once students have completed the learning style quiz, I break the class into teams and they compete to see which group can successfully answer the most questions in the pop culture quiz I’ve created. I run the quiz as a space race. Each group is assigned a different color icon (rocket, bicycle, unicorn). I project Socrative onto my screen, so students can see their group’s progress in relation to the other teams.

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The Socrative space race activity instantly melts away all of the awkwardness and social anxiety that accompanies the first day of school. It always amazes me how quickly students forget to be nervous and just have fun!

Boys at play

Story Time

I end the first day by asking my students to sit on the floor for story time. This always elicits some interesting comments and looks. My students are in 9th and 10th grade, so it’s been a while since anyone read them a picture book.

There is a method to my madness. I explain that little kids love, love, love to read. Yet many of my high school students say they don’t like to read. So, what happens? I’m not exactly sure what changes, but for 10 minutes each week I want my students to get lost in a story. I want them to remember a time when they loved stories. So, we do story time. No doubt this makes for interesting conversations with parents!

Storytime with ponytail

Students will leave your class feeling either excited or drained. We can control how we spend those first precious moments when students are deciding how they feel about our class. We can spend the day talking at them and telling them what to do or what not to do for the entire year, or we can excite their curiosity, encourage conversations between students, and make them feel at home in our classrooms.

At the end of that first day, parents will undoubtedly ask, “What did you do today?” Give your students something interesting to share! “We read the syllabus and reviewed the rules” isn’t going to make it into most conversations, but “We played a pop culture game with unicorns racing against each other and my team won!” might make it into the conversation on the ride home.

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