Multi-Level Skill Development: The Evolution of the “Cascading Worksheets”

assignment, grammar, in-class activities

A few years ago, I tried my hand (well, mostly my feet) at roller derby. My derby name was true to my rhet/comp nerd roots, Terrorstotle, and I met amazing friends while challenging myself in ways I had never done before. My derby dreams were cut short by an ill-timed crossover and a resulting broken ankle, but that’s not the point of this story. The point of this story is that the league that I joined had a “come one, come all” philosophy that was not unlike the open access of a community college.

Would-be skaters need not have any previous experience. The league had coaches who specialized in helping “greenies,” so named because there was a color coded system used to demarcate each skaters’ current skill level. Green was for newbies, and they were not yet cleared for physical contact. Gray was for those cleared for contact but not yet passed on for scrimmage eligibility. Red or blue (the team colors) was reserved for those who had passed the minimum qualifications for sanctioned play, and those players were granted full access to all drills during practice.

What I loved about this system is that we were all on the rink together, and the demarcation of “green” never felt like a punishment. It felt like a support system. The other skaters knew to take it a little slower when explaining something to someone new, and everyone cheered everyone else on during the practice nights dedicated to testing to see if a skater could move up to the next level.

roller skates in motion on a track

I was a “remedial” skater. I grew up on gravel-covered country roads without access to a  skating rink and had never been on roller skates before I decided to take up derby. I started with a class designed for children to learn how to move, but when I showed up at derby practice for the first time, I didn’t know how to stop, do a crossover, slow down, get up quickly from a fall, or take a hit without sprawling to the ground in a tumble of outstretched limbs. I was starting from the very beginning, and I needed repeated drills in every single minimum skill to progress. It took me multiple test attempts to move from green to gray. I had to work very hard to do things that seemed to come naturally to many of the people around me, yet I was never, ever treated like I didn’t belong there or like I couldn’t contribute to the team.

That experience of being one of the players in need of the most coaching but still feeling challenged and appreciated at every practice stuck with me as a teacher. I have come back to it again and again and attempted to replicate it in my developmental writing classroom.

How could I challenge students to progress through a series of pre-determined skills, allow them to work at their own pace, and still keep them together and motivated? 

That’s a question that we ask ourselves a lot as developmental educators. We’re often faced with a wide variety of skill sets in our classrooms. Some students have been out of school for years or decades. Some students never mastered a key foundational ability. At any given moment, there are students who need lots of instruction in a particular skill, students who need a brief reminder, and students who need no help whatsoever.

Nowhere does this show up more clearly for me than with the mechanics and technical skills of writing. Some of my students’ eyes glaze over if I talk about comma splices and run-on sentences. For some, it is boring, unnecessary drivel that makes them feel like they are being talked down to. Others don’t understand the root structure (a complete sentence, in this case) well enough to even understand what I’m talking about, so in order to reach them, I would have to break it down to an even more basic discussion, one that could take weeks and eat up precious classroom time that would have no benefit for the rest of the class who long ago mastered these ideas.

I tried moving these discussions to an online format where students could access them as they needed them and ignore them if they didn’t, but (as I’m sure anyone who has taught at any level is well aware) “optional” material might as well be nonexistent material.

My next plan was to create a series of online tests in Blackboard. I covered fragments, run-on sentences and comma splices, subject-verb agreement, common homophone confusion, and comma usage with coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. I created the tests myself, and I set them up so that a student had to get a 70% on each one to open up the next one, guaranteeing a passing grade and demonstration of skill mastery. They had all semester to take these tests. I thought it would be the perfect solution. Students who already had the skills could simply take the test, demonstrate it, and move on. Students who needed extra help could use the resources linked with each quiz to learn more about the skill on their own time, take it as many times as necessary, and then move on. Students who were truly struggling would show up in my grade book as having made multiple attempts, and I could intervene individually with extra help. On top of all of that, it would be some much-needed points that could help boost grades.

That’s not what happened. I needed to allow students to work at their own pace or the concept wouldn’t work, but most students just put them off until the last week or two of the semester. Worse, some students just never did them, and that turned my “easy points” assignment into a serious grade deflater.

What’s more, I made the online tests myself and used them across multiple semesters, so they weren’t contextualized to the course text. They were just random sentences. The further and further I moved toward embracing the philosophy behind the single-text curriculum, the more these online quizzes didn’t fit.
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So this semester I tried something new. Granted, the idea came to me mid-semester, so it was a truncated experiment, and the online quizzes were still on the books, but I think that this evolving idea may finally be reaching its finished form. I introduced “cascading worksheets.”

My classes read a chapter of a book a week. Each week we have some kind of assignment about the reading. Sometimes it’s a vocabulary activity, sometimes a traditional comprehension quiz, sometimes a group discussion. This semester, I introduced a worksheet series designed to test most of the same writing skills as the online quizzes. I also added a worksheet on paraphrasing, one on transition words, and one on designing strong thesis statements. Each worksheet was themed to that week’s chapter. I started with paraphrasing. If a student passed the paraphrasing worksheet, the next week s/he would receive the next worksheet topic in the series, themed to the new chapter. If s/he didn’t pass the worksheet (or didn’t turn it in), s/he would receive the same topic (Paraphrasing) also themed to the new chapter. If it took an entire semester of worksheets to learn how to paraphrase, the student would receive no penalty for missing the other worksheets, and s/he could continue to work on paraphrasing as long as it took. However, if the student moved on to the next assignment, there was an opportunity for more possible points. I further incentivized completion by offering bonus points (the equivalent to one worksheet total) for finishing all of the worksheets before the end of the semester.

It’s a lot of work on my part. I have to create worksheets themed to each chapter on a variety of topics. One week, I had students working on five different skills simultaneously, so that meant five separate worksheets for that chapter. However, I can re-use the same templates, and having to write new questions helped me keep the chapter material fresh in my mind. I also had to have a fast turnaround time in grading. The students had to know if they passed the previous worksheet to see if they could move on to the next, so that meant I collected worksheets on Friday and had to have them back every Monday. It was worth the work, though.

The benefits to the students were numerous:

1) It acted as a reading comprehension reinforcement. I took quotes and sample sentences directly from the material in the book. Students had to paraphrase passages from the book, identify transition words from sentences in the book, and find comma errors in sentences summarizing major chapter themes. Even if they didn’t initially read the chapter as well as they should have, completing the worksheet helped filled in the gaps and reinforced the main ideas.

2) It didn’t single out students for falling behind. Some of my students became very collaboratively competitive and got excited about showing each other whether they moved on to the next worksheet or not, but I didn’t make any grand announcements about who had moved on. I simply handed out everyone’s worksheets with the new one stapled on the back. Some people had a worksheet on a new topic; some had a worksheet on the same topic. No one else knew where they were in the sequence unless they chose to disclose it.

3) It allowed me to free up class time. I still had all those online resources students could turn to if they were struggling with a worksheet. If they really needed to brush up on how to paraphrase, I had a video lecture they could watch on Blackboard, website links they could follow, and sample passages they could view, but I didn’t need to spend our joint class time going over that again and again. If students were continually stuck on the same worksheet, I could handle that individually in office hours.

4) It took the “kill” out of “drill and kill.” It wasn’t that long ago that grammar worksheets made up the bulk of the developmental education curriculum in our program. The book we were using for our lowest level was filled with them. Students spent more time looking at decontextualized sentences for grammar errors than they did learning to read and understand sustained prose on a college-level topic or how to write multi-paragraph responses to it. It wasn’t helping their writing because they didn’t have anything to say when they actually wrote, and the focus on grammar was isolated from a real rhetorical purpose. This method maintains some of the focused attention from a grammar drill, but it places it into a larger purpose, and it makes it peripheral to the more important skills of understanding a text and responding to it meaningfully.

5) It doesn’t destroy grades! If a student doesn’t do the worksheet, s/he misses the opportunity for those points, but it doesn’t go in the grade book as a zero. It just doesn’t go in the grade book at all. Those students will have destroyed a path to some bonus points and will probably get frustrated with being handed the same worksheet topic over and over again, but that gives me an opportunity for intervention to discuss work habits and motivation without tanking students’ grades over grammar drills. I can still prioritize paper writing and more global participation as the main components of the grade.

All-in-all, I am happy with how this assignment has progressed, and I think that I’ve finally captured some of the benefits of that roller derby instruction. Next semester will be the first time that I implement it fully, and I think I’ll use eight topics over the course of thirteen chapters, which means students could fail to progress a few weeks and still complete all of the worksheets and get the bonus points. I hope that it lives up to my expectations.

Either way, I doubt it will break anyone’s ankles, so there’s that benefit.

Image credit: Terrance McNally, Uleskelf

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