A Teacher’s Reflections on Teaching and Assessing in a Standards-based Classroom


Jody Smothers Marcello

On the day of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, one of my eighth grade students stood in front of the Sitka Chamber of Commerce reading a letter he had written to Thomas Jefferson. Shane was explaining to the third President of the United States what had happened to slavery after his death in 1826. At the time, our school was structured so that language arts and social studies were taught in an integrated block, with eighth grade social studies focusing on the United States. U.S. Studies at our school incorporates four major components: geography, history, social issues, and government. Shane presented his letter as a demonstration of how well he was performing to our standard for oral presentation, the language arts component of his work in social studies.

What about the social studies content itself? The question points to one of the tensions in contemporary education. If we integrate subjects and teach them in interdisciplinary settings, do we risk losing something in terms of performance in all the content areas that constitute the learning situation? In making use of our district’s Oral Presentation Standards and accompanying Scoring Guide, I focus primarily on subject content rather than language arts when assessing my students on projects involving the social studies. Having found this strategy satisfactory to a degree, I convinced our district’s assessment committee to add a section to our Oral Presentation Scoring Guide enabling teachers to insert the specific content standards needed to reflect deeper understandings of various disciplines.

This revision was one way to deal with the struggle to hold students accountable not only for good writing and oral presentation, but also for depth of knowledge in the social studies. This tension is only one of several I have felt, both as a classroom teacher and a college instructor of student teachers, in reconciling standards and assessment with quality social studies teaching. The tensions experienced by teachers and schools in implementing standards and assessments in the classroom are well described by Monson and Monson.1 We, as professional educators, wrestle with how assessments should be used with regard to:

Using these dilemmas as a guide, self-reflection tells me that in the retrospective assignment that follows, I leaned towards assessment as a tool for teaching and learning with social studies as the primary discipline. I also leaned toward habits of mind, simulation, student selection, interactive context, expanded process constructs, flexibility, product, and qualitative scoring.


A Retrospective on the Civil Rights Movement

When I first began teaching justice issues raised during the civil rights movement, I gave my students an assignment to create a civil rights documentary after viewing segments of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965.2 While this assignment was adequate, I struggled with its impact. Did it allow students to project how they themselves saw the civil rights movement? And, if not, what kind of assessment would enable students to create individual and more reflective products rather than merely replicate what they saw and heard throughout the video documentary?

For the past two years, I have taken a different route in assessing what students have learned about the civil rights movement by asking them to create personal retrospectives. My thinking about this was affected by several things. First, I received a copy of a poignant multi-image video program called Touchstone, which features long-time Alabama teacher Peggy Steele Clay reminiscing about the impact of the civil rights movement on her life as she stands before the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. She says of the monument, which is inscribed with the names of civil rights heroes: “It is a reflecting, moving, constant reminder of what was, what is, and what will be.” Another influence on me was attending the first Finding A Way institute in Philadelphia, which provided a good reminder of the importance of discovering ways for middle school students to connect their own voices to their learning.2

Finally, I reflected back on the many hours I had spent studying authentic assessment in order to write the assessment chapter for our state social studies framework document. During that time, I had noted in my journal how structured the mathematics and science assessments we were examining seemed to be, and had wondered what kind of assessment practices would capture the dimensions of the social studies discipline that make it so unique. Would it be possible to create assessments that deal with issues in society that endure over place and time? Could we be flexible enough to follow the advice of Robert Rothman that “students need opportunities to struggle with ideas until they can accommodate them within their own mental framework”?3

When I approached teaching the civil rights movement in the spring of 1997, I changed the focus of our study to hearing and developing voices about that era. We still read about the origins of the civil rights movement and watched segments of Eyes on the Prize. But we also thought about the individual voices we were hearing. And, I allowed my own voice to come into my teaching in a more open way than ever before as I told students what it was like to go to elementary school when the school system was integrating in the 1960s, and how my own views on what was happening and how I should act in social situations differed from some of the messages I received from society.

The retrospective assignment presented in this article results from the merging of my thoughts about assessment, about bringing students’ own voices to history, and about creating a sense of empathy for important historical events that this country holds in its collective memory. In this assignment, students were free to select the form of their retrospective, but it had to be grounded in the history and voices of the era. Some students chose to take a documentary approach by creating journal entries on a series of events or a web page that reflected their own interpretations as well as linking to the wealth of sites on the civil rights era. Others chose a concrete fashion such as a diorama or collage. What emerged at the exemplary end of the spectrum, however, were those who created ways to voice their own distinctive interpretations of a history that is still alive in many of our hearts and minds.

From the student work in the spring of 1997, I was able to build a scoring guide (see Figure 1. Retrospective Assessment), which I gave to students along with the assignment in the spring of 1998. With an open-ended assignment and clear expectations up front, each student had a clear opportunity to learn from the assessment task. A wide range of students succeeded with that assignment. An example of a student product from the spring of 1998 is the poem and drawing included in this article.

Time and again, teachers say they need time to reflect on their own teaching in order to make the changes that would accord with the best practices of standards-based education. This is the lesson: teachers need the time to design, implement, and interpret the learning opportunities and performance assessments they construct for their students.4 What is reflected in this informal discussion is one teacher’s experimentation, but I would like to think that more teachers will share such experiences as we paddle together through these seas of educational change.

In her book The Right to Learn, Linda-Darling Hammond opens by quoting W. E. B. DuBois on the freedom to learn: “Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental...”5 Are we continuing the legacy of the civil rights movement by giving our students the freedom to learn? Will this era of creating standards and assessments in the social studies be remembered for the positive efforts we put forth towards that goal?



1. Robert J. Monson and Michele Pahl Monson, “Professional Development for Implementing Standards: Experimentation, Dilemma Management, and Dialogue,” Bulletin (September 1997): 65-73.

2. Finding A Way is described at http://thunder.ocis.temple.edu/~faw/.

3. Robert Rothman, Organizing So All Children Can Learn: Applying the Principles of Learning. National Alliance for Restructuring Education (August 1996).

4. Ibid., 13

5. Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn: A Blueprint for Creating Schools that Work (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 19.


Jody Smothers Marcello is facilitator of standards and assessments for the Sitka School District, Sitka, Alaska.


The Hunter and the Hunted

by Franny Donohoe


A shot in the night

A single crack in the cold autumn air

A black shadow falls to the ground

Forever to lie still


The hunter is victorious

The hunted the loser

In this game for life or death

See who has won


He gambles all

In hopes to gain more

Yet on this night

He loses all


What gives the hunter the right

To take this life

To shatter the dreams he dreamt

And the hopes he hoped


Life, full of happiness and misery

Hard times and good times

The most precious gift of all

He took


Took this life and toyed with it

Tossing it up and down the way you or I might toss a rock

Yet with each toss changes in his life

For good or ill


And when he was alone

He threw the rock

Far into the deep sea

Never to be seen again


Families may wonder

What happened that night

But they’ll never know

Their memories all that they have


Now you must ask yourself

Reach far down inside

Reach for the truth

Is there a difference between black and white?


Is white superior

The good in all the world

Before you answer

Ask yourself this


Which is better

White on black or white on white

For without black, the white would be lost

And in that loss the world might fall


A reminder to those

It could easily be

By a simple twist in history

That the hunted be the hunter.


Franny Donohoe, a student of the author’s, wrote the above poem and painted the watercolor on page 339.

Retrospective Standards


The National Council for the Social Studies standards call for one theme of the social studies curriculum to be 2 Time, Continuity, and Change.

Human beings seek to understand their historical roots and to locate themselves in time. Knowing how to read and reconstruct the past allows one to develop a historical perspective and to answer questions such as: Who am I? What happened in the past? How am I connected to those in the past? How has the world changed and how might it change in the future? Why does our personal sense of relatedness to the past change? How can the perspective we have about our own life experiences be viewed as part of the larger human story across time?

The NCSS performance expectations for middle grades students more explicitly state that students in these grades should be given the opportunity to study “the ways human beings view themselves in and over time.” Thus, they are expected to:




Retrospective Assignment


In Touchstone, Peggy Steele Clay provides a retrospective on the civil rights movement and the meaning of the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Think about two questions: (1) What is she talking about? (2) What does she mean?

Think also about the stories you heard in the video segments from Eyes on the Prize. What are the stories of the Little Rock Nine? What other voices did you hear in our study of the civil rights movement?

Your assignment is to create a retrospective of the civil rights movement. Before beginning, you need to consider the following questions:

Figure 1

Assessment of the Retrospective Assignment Described in this Article


No Attempt to Meet Basic Requirements and Standards

Attempted to Meet Basic Requirements and Standards

Met Basic Requirements and Standards

Met High Level Requirements and Standards

Clearly Exceeded Requirements and Standards


Ideas and Content: Retrospective

Product is not a retrospective

Product is more of a report than a retrospective

Product is a retrospective

Product is clearly a retrospective

Product is clearly and poignantly a retrospective


Ideas and Content: Civil Rights/Slavery

Product lacks connection to the civil rights movement or slavery

Product attempts to provide a recall of events related to the civil rights movement and/or the effects of slavery on our society

Product provides a recall of events related to the civil rights movement and/or the effects of slavery on our society

Product provides an understanding of the civil rights movement and/or the effects of slavery on our society

Product provides a clear and thorough analysis or evaluation of the civil rights movement and/or the effects of slavery on our society



No personality or character (no voice)

Your own voice may be present but lacks any clarity or may simply reflect routine, predictable communication

Your own voice is somewhat present and clear (goes beyond the routine and predictable)

Your own voice or the voice of a historical figure is definitely present and clear but may need to be louder and more poignant

Your own voice or the voice of a historical figure is loud and clear and as poignant as Peggy Steele Clay’s was in Touchstone



Final product is not ready to be shared

Final product can be shared within the classroom

Final product is of the quality to display in the hall

Final product is of the quality to put in the display case upstairs or be published in a school newspaper

Final product could be published in a magazine or displayed in a museum


Creativity (Overall)

Work does not reflect creativity

Work demonstrates limited creativity

Work demonstrates creativity

Work demonstrates a unique quality and is creative

Work is highly artistic or eloquent




No detail is apparent

Detail is apparent

Detail is clear

Detail is focused on cultural elements and readily apparent

Detail is highly focused and highlighted in a unique manner


Work Effort

Evidence of only a limited amount of work or beginning draft of work

Evidence of a fairly complete rough draft

Evidence of a complete effort

Evidence of a complete, thorough, and careful effort

Evidence of a “professiona#148; effort


Shows a one-day effort

Shows a two-day effort

Shows at least a three- to four-day effort

Shows a week’s effort

Shows a week’s work and then some

Type of Product: _____________________________________________________


©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.