A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 18 2011

On Exemplars as Tools

Exemplars are powerful teaching tools, I’ve discovered. An exemplar is basically an ideal model–an archetype?–of what students should aspire towards for any given assignment. If, for instance, students are writing a literary analysis paper, what might an “A” paper look like? How might it be structured? For an 8th grader, maybe something like this.

Indeed, for struggling students, an exemplar will often be the only aid that will get them to complete an assignment. Without a concrete idea of what the end product might look like, completing an assignment is but a mere abstraction. The exemplar is what puts students over the tipping point.

A few weeks ago, I assigned students a modern-day ballad writing assignment. For a while, students complained, almost on a daily basis, about how they didn’t know what to do. This was in spite of all that I gave them: clear requirements on what components needed to be included, a rubric that showed exactly how they’d be graded and a “How To” guide with additional links.

(the assignment is available here)

Still, with a few days left until the due date, students were stumped.

As I explained before, I decided to explicitly model the writing process for one stanza of an exemplar ballad. Then, my students created a second stanza. I finished the ballad and printed out copies for each student. Part of their task was to analyze my ballad, so that they could practice ballad analysis with a familiar and fun text.

(my modern-day ballad exemplar is available here)

In the end, I was impressed, both by some of the end products and analyses. The exemplar(s) worked wonders.

Here is KE’s analysis of my ballad (to get a little “meta,” this student’s analysis is modeled off of the lesson we did on analyzing the medieval ballad, “Get Up and Bar the Door“):

The ballad of “I was walking down Georgia” is a ballad that is quite intriguing and compelling. The ballad depicts a picture of a chance encounter between an inquisitive teacher and a student who is unpassionate about school. What happens is that the teacher had a conversation with the young man that eventually led to the young man having a different perspective on school. The overall meaning is that although school might not be for every one it is very essential and it is something you should give a try.

The ballad, “I was walking down Georgia” contains several elements of a ballad. It contained a story on a common topic which is school. It also contains refrain with the repetition of “I was walking down Georgia”. The conversational aspect is vivid in the conversation between ‘Zell and the teacher. Also it follows the ABCB rhyme scheme.

I found this poem to be an interesting read because for one our own teacher was in it. Also I found the dialogue between the student and teacher compelling. The teacher’s ability to change the student’s mind in my opinion felt was way too easy. The skeptic in me really wondered if the student really liked school. Well at least the student has chosen the right path.

Here is JW’s modern-day ballad, which has clear parallels with my exemplar:

“I was thinking of him” by JW

I was thinking of him
Decided to close eyes in bed
Bursting in tears
As memories of us took over in my head

In a focused moment
I held breath not to scream
Shocking as it was
He appeared as a voice in a dream

What happened to us?
Confused he sound!
What do you mean what happened to us?
(Angry voice) -as if he was actually around!

I was thinking of him
In his trendiest fashion
Just my type
My eyes steady burst with such passion!

I will always love you!
Even if it’s my fault we departed?
Then why couldn’t we just talk it over?
Now I’m all broken hearted!

How crushed you are!
You once had everything
You loved me yes? Yes of course
But pain you would always bring!

I was thinking of him
As we continued to talk
Tears rolled down my face
As memories continued to stalk!

I believed every word you said!
None cautious of heart break
“But your heart said love!”
Yeah! Just another decision to make!

You know of your reasons
And yet of mine
Your heart is now broken
And in my eyes it inst fine!

I was thinking of him
How the dream was structuring his appearance
Was it possible for him to really care?
Or would it make any difference

You know of me well!
Yes! An Emotional rollercoaster!
Yapp! and cause of that
Unto you I came closer

I was thinking of him
Wanting to be cool with me
But the real him wouldn’t give a-hell!
He would just take off–flee!

But in this dream
He seemed nice
Enough to dry a tear
And he given me slight advice

But I still don’t understand
Is this some kind of lesson?
Well babe! Let’s continue to talk
And soon you will answer your own question!

I believe you loved me
But your ego stood strong!
Then babe! if that was the case!
Why hold on for so long?

Well maybe I just wanted someone
And that thought was in the way
But babe! There are other guys waiting to give you that
With me you didn’t have to stay

Had this mean he moved on
For his pretend voice to help me get over him?
Well it’s not rocket science! Babe!
My chances are slim

I was thinking of him
But not the way I did before
Although feelings were there
I started to ignore!

I was thinking of him
No! His imaginary voice that helped
I don’t need his love!
I can do badly all by myself!

I’ve found that giving students a clear and concrete understanding of what it is they need to do can go extremely far in getting students to do their work.

And I don’t mean work for work’s sake, but the true cognitive thinking that leads to greater learning–the construction of it. Until I gave students the exemplar, the assignment was drudgery; there was no equipment with which to build learning. But, once armed with the exemplar as a tool, they could begin the process.

I hope I can continue providing good exemplars for students to help guide their thinking.

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2 Responses

  1. I sometimes struggle with giving students an exemplar that approximates the assignment but is different enough that students can’t simply copy it in their own words. In history I usually wind up using a different time period (here is a sample flow chart for the Civil War, now do it for WWI) but I often have a hard time coming up with a helpful — but not too helpful! — example.

  2. …for English assignments. (Sorry for the comment fail).

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Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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