Our school and district use our own combination of two methods that work for us, adapted through our own collaborative practice, reflection, and research over many years to fit our district goals and population. As a starting point and foundation, we use the Jane Schaffer method for teaching the actual composition process and a slightly modified version of 6 Traits program for assessing the finished product (or the work-in-progress).
What I like about the 6 Traits assessment system is that it has a strong SBG orientation. It is a rubric-based system that assesses idea development, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions -- the main basic categories that young writers need to master to produce both competent and coherent arguments, paragraphs, and essays. In our district, we have whittled it down to a four-point scale, which gives most middle schoolers a fighting chance of making sense of their scores.
What I like less about the 6 Traits assessment system is the complexity and denseness of its rubric. As Edward Tufte, the infographics pioneer might say, its information density approaches near-total opacity.
While I appreciate that its authors are trying to be comprehensive, my experience is that, for a middle school or high school student trying to juggle the many skills that come into play in writing a persuasive paragraph, it's just too damned complicated.
One of the things I've noticed early on in this school year is that even our strongest writing students tend to have only a tenuous grasp of what makes an effective topic sentence. And having taught literature at the university level, I have seen how this confusion tends to persist and worsen over time.
So my goal was to come up with an activity that integrated two tools I've found useful in SBG in the math classroom: (1) a clear, simple, compelling four-point rubric for judging the effectiveness of a topic sentence, and (2) an activity to give students practice in judging a wide range of topic sentences, along with practice in using the rubric as a basic for analyzing, debating, and justifying their assessments of each one.
With that in mind, I created the two tools which are attached here: a Topic Sentence Rubric and a "Judging Topic Sentences" activity for use in pairs or small groups. The "Judging Topic Sentences" activity sheet includes twenty topic sentences I wrote based on a recent writing prompt for that staple of the eighth-grade English curriculum, "Flowers for Algernon." The writing prompt (which was deliberately broadly written) asked the student to compose a persuasive paragraph regarding the author's message in the story about cruelty toward people with mental disabilities.
I gave them 30 minutes in class to work together on the assessing activity before we came back together as a whole class to discuss and give closure to the process.
What was fascinating as I circulated among the groups was how quickly everybody grabbed hold of the idea of using criteria from the rubric as the basis of their judgments. Suddenly I was hearing arguments about how, yes, a certain claim was definitely true and supportable but was basically pretty trivial! I was also hearing students argue that another example made an "original and juicy claim," but that it was awfully long and wordy and could easily be improved with better word choice and sentence construction.
When we came back together as a class, I asked for examples of the worst topic sentence on the list and the best. The discussion was productive in that it brought students to an understanding that an "OK" topic sentence could kick off a really great paragraph if the writer used all the tools at his or her disposal. It also made them realize that a truly outstanding topic sentence could launch a truly mediocre paragraph if it was followed by weak use of evidence from the text and lame or badly written analysis and interpretation.
My fellow eighth-grade English teachers used this activity in their own way over the next few days and found it to be very helpful in getting students to think about what makes a strong and effective topic sentence.
So now it looks as though it will become a regular part of our writing curriculum.
Another triumph for SBG!