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Project-based assessments in an ESL classroom

New York Teacher

When my principal announced that this year’s focus would be on student assessments, I worried about the meaningless 1’s my English language learners would receive on the writing or reading assessments at the end of every unit. How would I mitigate their confusion and reassure them that I know lack of communication does not mean lack of thought?

As a bilingual Bangladeshi teacher of English as a second language and English language arts, I wanted to revel in the richness of each student’s talents. How could I do that when unit assessments require my ELLs to write literary responses to pages full of strange symbols? They weren’t entering middle school in the United States as the buoyant learners they were in Bangladesh. I worried that these students would be discouraged by a failing grade on their first test here.

Putting myself in their shoes, I became a language learner, studying Arabic with a teacher overseas through Skype. I observed how my teacher assessed me: through reading, writing, pronunciation, conversation and — most importantly — projects and presentations. I was engaged, encouraged, praised and, best of all, happy to be thriving in a language that I had just begun learning a few months earlier.

I had found the missing piece of my puzzle: project-based assessments. Here are some of the projects we’ve done so far.

Found poetry: The goal of this project was to enable students to analyze how particular elements of a piece of literature interact with a novel that we read together in class. The essential question of the unit was “How does culture shape adolescence?” The students focused on the single page they considered most significant in response to the question. They then constructed a poem from the words on that page, either in English or in their native language.

They also chose one literary element and made a model or 3-D representation of their poem and that element. This allowed them to be creative and meet the standards of the Common Core. This project was not only hands-on, but also “minds-on.”

Making a difference in your community: The essential question of the next unit was: “What role should adolescents play in society?” We read many articles together about adolescents shaping their communities, tracing authors’ claims and evaluating the strength of their evidence. My students listed their talents and passions, each choosing one that could change something in their society within 10 days (over winter break).

Each wrote an informational text modeled on the articles we read in class about adolescents taking a stance on social issues. This time, they were the ones effecting change. Their articles had to exhibit their claims, along with evidence of taking action, which their peers could trace. They needed to follow a text structure of their choosing with the key text features of an informational article. They used graphic organizers to brainstorm their claims, evidence and reasoning. Did this show that they understood claims? Evidence? Reasoning? Text structures? Text features? All of the above? Yes. And they had fun in the process.

The “road” that has been “taken”: I intentionally wrapped up our poetry unit with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” Knowing that my students and their families came here in hopes of fulfilling the American dream, we made many text-to-self connections while reading the poem. The students begged to create their own poems about the “roads” they took or didn’t take.

After brainstorming ideas about choices they made that affected their lives, they began drafting poems using poetic devices, literary elements and their own stylistic choices. After peer-editing each other’s poems, they revised their work and presented it to the class. As each student presented, other students orally analyzed the presenter’s poem using the strategies SIFT (symbols, images, figures of speech, tone and theme) and SOAPSTone (speaker, occasion, audience, purpose, subject, tone).

Projects allow my students to engage in each unit’s content and ensure that my ELLs are simultaneously acquiring language skills. Giving ELLs project-based assessments helps them focus their learning, screen out irrelevant stimuli and feel a sense of accomplishment. Instead of losing their language, they’re gaining another — and excelling in it as well.

If you are interested in learning more or would like copies of these project-based assessments, please feel free to contact me at