Session 5 – Teaching Writing | Big History Project

Welcome to Big History. My name is Angelina Krieger and today’s topic is writing. “That’s my favorite,” said almost no student ever. But in this course, the writing is so frequent and varied, it will soon feel less like a chore and more like a skill worth developing. Together with tools on developing reading skills, and critical thinking, our focus on writing help students develop a pretty robust approach to history. Here is what we are going to cover. First, the writing rubric. There is one rubric used throughout the entire course. Together with claim testing, students will have a simple and consistent approach to thinking about their own writing that builds upon itself over the year. Second, we’ll talk about our Investigations. The course includes an essay assignment for each unit, called Investigations, modeled on the document-based questions assessments you might find on the SAT or other standardized tests. Next, BHP Score, this is our free essay scoring service. –yes, you heard that right. It’s totally free– that provides consistent formative feedback over the year. Finally, we’ll look at our classroom writing activities. We will review some of the repeating writing activities that appear in each unit. Each structured to help students perform better on their Investigations. Let’s start with the Writing Rubric. Big History believes that for students to get better at writing, they need to understand what good writing looks like. The BHP Writing Rubric is a simple rubric aligned with the Common Core and College Board assessments like the SAT and AP exams. It consists of five rows: Claim and Focus, which looks at making a claim early and focusing attention on supporting that claim. Analysis and Evidence, which looks at the use of evidence and how it supports the claim made. Organization which looks at the structure and whether it supports the writing. Language and Style, which looks at the mechanics and tone of the writing. And finally, applying BHP concepts, which looks at whether the student is using the big ideas from the course in support of their writing. This single rubric will be used consistently over the course of the year. They will work to apply the rubric in a series of writing activities found in every unit. Then, they will get formative feedback on their own writing against the rubric using BHP Score. As the year progresses, their understanding of the rubric will deepen. Now, let’s talk a bit about our formal writing assignments. At the end of each unit, we ask students to write an Investigation. Similar to document-based questions, or DBQs, these activities start with a driving question such as “Why do we look at things far away and up close?” “What makes humans different from other species?” and “What’s the next threshold?” Each Investigation asks students to read a short collection of documents related to the driving question, then write a multi-paragraph essay, complete with thesis intro and conclusion, and of course, evidence from the documents they’ve read backing up their claims. Each investigation is designed to take about two days to complete. Students return to the driving question and develop their conjectures about the topic. They will have had practice thanks to the DQ Notebook exercises Next, they’ll explore the documents in the Investigation Library and take notes to prepare for the exercise. The second day is dedicated to writing, as their understanding of the Writing Rubric and tools like Claim Testing develop, you will see them get a lot better at this. If you can take the time to complete Investigation 0, you will get a real picture of growth over the year. Your students might grumble about completing an essay in the first week of school, but it will make the scores they get later so much more meaningful when they see how far they’ve come. Each Investigation can be submitted to BHP Score via the website. This is a free essay scoring service offered to teachers of the course. From within the course, students are able to launch Revision Assistant from This enables students to check their essays against the first four rows of the rubric at any time. They get feedback instantly, and as often as they would like. They can do this for any of the nine essays available in the course. It’s that simple. And did I mention, it’s totally free? We started offering this service because we saw that students were making real gains in their writing based on an ongoing research project we do with the University of Michigan. To make even bigger gains, we knew we needed to provide students with more opportunities for feedback. The problem is that teachers are already slammed. Assigning and grading more papers is rarely an option. So we teamed up with Turnitin to provide timely, formative feedback on student writing. We’ve been testing this service for a while now, and there are a couple of things we should highlight. First, this isn’t perfect. You may not agree with every individual score or every comment These scores are designed only as formative feedback. They are not a replacement for your comments as someone who really knows that student Nor are they used as a grade in the gradebook. Our hope is that BHP Score provides feedback that moves students in the right direction. Second, this is a new kind of system for many of us. Your students might get a little button happy at first, eager for feedback. They will quickly learn that a one sentence essay doesn’t score well, and neither does a two sentence essay. Over time, they will cease with the obsessive button pushing and only check their score when they have something substantive to check. Finally, the service can’t grade whether students understand the content. You will have to do that in your final pass through. To support the development of good writing practices, we’ve woven a series of Investigation Writing activities into the course. The first set helps students to dive deeply into the Writing Rubric, exploring each role multiple times. To start, students will look at a text from the course, or exceptional student exemplars and evaluate them against the rubric, then starting in Unit 4, students will review less than awesome student writing samples then improve them looking at each row of the rubric twice more. A second set of writing activities is the Driving Question or DQ Notebook. This activity asks students to respond to the Driving Question for each unit. They do this at the very beginning of each unit, even before they get into the content. Because they may not know much about the topic, but they know something. And, it turns out, this is important. Learning scientists call this activating prior knowledge. Students create a mental model that later allows them to organize the ideas and correct misconceptions they brought into the course. As well as expand on their initial understanding. Students will revisit their DQ Notebook later in the unit. Now able to cite evidence from the materials they have studied. There you have it. Just a quick recap: Writing is incredibly important in BHP. To help students get better at it, we have a single rubric they are measured with all year. Our Investigations provide a glimpse into student progress and writing at the end of each unit. And BHP Score provides an opportunity for regular, formative feedback on student progress and writing. Finally, our classroom writing activities are designed to help students understand what makes good writing and strategies to get there. That’s all for now. Be sure to visit our blog or the community to talk more in depth about writing in Big History.

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