Am I a good teacher? Part 2 of 3

In Part 2 of this series, Mr. Orphal offers some student work. This is the first paper from one of his studnets last fall. In a week’s time, he’ll share the final paper from this same student and ask you to judge: Is he a good teacher?

In my American History classes this year, we began with a study of the mystery surrounding the Roanoke colony. As a piece of local history, here in North Carolina, I thought the students would be excited and stay motivated for what would be a long project.

Our first project is always the longest. It take us nearly fifty hours of class time to so our fist papers. In contract, they write their sixth paper in just half that time. In the beginning everything is new. Many have never read a primary source document before. Of the ones who have, nearly all have only seen primary sources reproduced onto a worksheet with the typical three or four reading comprehension questions attached. Very few of my students had every writing a paper in a class other than English. None had explored the idea that a source could be biased or misleading, being trained to always trust their classes and books as sources of unquestioned truth.

Over the weeks, I train them to look at the author of their document and imagine what motivation or purpose that author may have had in creating the document. This helps them find how and where the document might be slanting the truth. We also explore who the author was, in order to determine what kind of authority she or he might be on the topic they are writing about. In the example below, one of the sources my student uses extensively is a pamphlet written by Richard Hakluyt. Hakluyt was a friend of Walther Raleigh, and his pamphlet was intended as a recruiting tool for the new colony. While my student successfully understands and communicates this aspect of potential bias in this source, she fails to relate the fact that neither Hakluyt nor Raleigh ever visited the so-called New World. What Halkuyt wrote, he pulled completely from his imagination.

What follows is my student’s paper. It is one of the better products of this first topic, but, as related above, it has several critical flaws. After each paragraph, I’ll interrupt her to insert my comments, so I can point out to a reader of this blog who is not familiar with Roanoke or our research documents the mistakes in her analysis.  Those comments will be bold and italicized for easy identification.

At the end of her paper, I’ll share with you how she scored on the rubric. I’ve attached a blank copy of the rubric I use with these papers. Feel free to borrow and modify it for your own use. Briefly, in reference to the rubric, I need to offer thanks and praise to colleagues in Oakland Unified School District, especially Ms. Lisa Rothbard, for their hard work and wonderful collaboration on this tool.

John White sailed back into Roanoke, seeing smoke, hoping for a sign of his beloved daughter and granddaughter whom he hasn’t seen in three years. The colony needed supplies, as they were struggling with living in Roanoke so John kissed his family goodbye and set off for England. The plan was to be gone for a couple months but once he got to England, his ship was needed for the war with Spain, and so John White had to stay, worried about his family and the rest of the colony. When he reached the site of the colony, he found no sign of anyone having been there anytime recently. The only indication of where they might have gone, a vague note, the word CROATOAN carved simply and peacefully into a tree. Roanoke’s promise looked very different from the harsh realities of living in the new world. Alone and isolated, surrounded by hostile Native American villages, the colony was doomed to failure.

I just love her hook! My class spends three days doing nothing but writing hooks for our papers. After years of reading essays where the writer begins by simply restating the question put to him, I have expressly forbidden this technique in my class. “Never, never, never start your paper with a question!” I admonish. “If I read, ‘Would you like to know about the mystery of Roanoke?’ as the start of your paper, my reaction is going to be, ‘No.’” I was impressed that this student found a compelling story from her documents to use as her hook. From this, and from the topic sentences below, I could see that she had some experience writing before she came to my class.

The English had their ideas of how the New World would be when they arrived and a list of things they wanted to accomplish. Before leaving for the new world the to-be colonists had expected to get rich, convert the natives to Christianity, and do their queen proud. “By return thence, this realme shall receive (by reason of the situation of the climate, and by reason of the excellent soile) Oade, Oile, Wines, Hops, Salt, and most or all of the commodities that we receive from the best parts of Europe, and we shall receive the same better cheape, than now we receive them as we may use the matter.” The quote from the pamphlet, (Doc 1) written by Richard Hakluyt, one of Walter Raleigh’s friends, was designed to support Raleigh, who planned the colony, and make people want to go live in Roanoke. The author said it like that to make people think that it was an economically beneficial decision to go live in the new world. They also wanted to be good Christians and spread their religion among the natives. ”The glory of god by planting of religion among those infidels.” This quote from the pamphlet was trying to get people to go, so the author was trying to make it sound like it was well needed help and you would be giving all kinds of glory to God and would most definitely go to heaven if you did this. Hakluyt made it sound like the natives would most definitely be friendly but he himself had his doubts. He hoped all would go well with the natives and the converting to Christianity. At the time, Queen Elizabeth wanted to increase the force of Protestant Christianity with the natives of New World because the catholic king of Spain had conquered and converted a lot of the South and Central Americas. In doing so, King Phillip had gained all kinds of glory and riches, and the English wanted that for their queen. “The possibilitie of the inlarging of the dominion of the Queenes most excellent Maiestie, and consequently of her honour, revenues, and of her power by this enterprise” Hakluyt was a friend of Raleigh’s, and considering his friendly relationship with the queen, Hakluyt had a bit of a bias in his goal to honor the queen.

Here, she does a pretty good job analyzing her quotes. She uses the “Say, Mean, Matter” format I teach. She explains what each of the quotes say in plain English, before she explains how the quote supports her argument. The big problem for her in this paragraph is that all of her quotes come from the same source. She knows better than this. We spend over a week reading several sources, twelve for the Roanoke project. We gather lots of evidence, and we talk about how one cannot make a strong point using only one source. However, as is often the case on these first papers, what a student clearly knows in the middle of our project does not reappear in the final product.

When the colonists finally got to Roanoke, all was well for the time being. It seemed to meet what Arthur Barlowe said in his report back to Raleigh when he’d gone there on his exploratory voyage; “The soil is most plentiful, sweet, fruitful… sweet smelling trees.” The colonists were ecstatic that they had arrived safely and that Roanoke seemed to be everything Raleigh and his underlings had promised. They didn’t have many problems at first, but after the first few days the cracks started to show. The natives were not as friendly as they’d hoped. The colonists ended up putting up walls around the settlement to keep them safe from the violence that plagued the colony. They were desperate and needed help, but England was little help. They began trying to leave, and soon John White stepped up and went back to England to get supplies to help the struggling colony.

She has two major here. In her statement, “The colonists ended up putting up walls around the settlement to keep them safe from the violence that plagued the colony,” she is incorrect. In our materials packet, we have a document that is a drawing from John White, governor of Roanoke, of a Native American village that is walled with a palisade. She incorrectly interrupts this as a wall around the Roanoke settlement. Finally, she only has two pieces of evidence to support this point. Our minimum is three.

Originally, the plan was for White to sail back to England in 1587, grab what they needed and return to his dear family, to his daughter and his precious grandbaby, Virginia Dare, in Roanoke. The trip would take two or three months, but instead, with no way to contact the colony to let them know he was even alive, he was gone for three years. His ship was needed for the war with Spain and he had no way of getting back to Roanoke. When he finally arrived back to the colony, the year was 1590. John was expecting to see some sign of the colony, and as he approached Roanoke he saw smoke coming from near where he thought the colony to be. “At our first coming to anchor on this shore we saw a great smoke rise in the Isle Roanoke near the place where I left out colony in the year 1587, which smoke put us in good hope that some of the colony were there expecting my return out of England.” When he came ashore, there was no sign of the colony. There was no one around. The only clue as to where they might have possibly gone was “Capital letters was graven CROATOAN without any cross or sign of distress.” The lack of the cross was an indication that the letters were carved without danger or threat. They were willingly carved. John continued to look around, but to no avail.

What’s great about this paragraph is how well my student maintained the flow of her narrative. She weaves her quotes into the narrative very well. However, again, she only has two quotes and again she only uses one of our sources.

John White never found his granddaughter and daughter, or any of the rest of the colonists. He had to return home without any answers, without the answers we still don’t have.  The colony began with so much hope and promise, but in the end, they needed more than their faith in god to save them from a mysterious fate. Their colony, without help from England, was doomed from the start.

This student earned an A, but that’s not to say that this is an A paper. My rubric has five categories and five values. You can download and look at the complete rubric below, but as this post is quite long already, I’ll be brief as to how this student scored.

  • Argument = 4/3. She has a clear thesis that maps out the major arguments of the papers, but the thesis is only adequately supported by her evidence and analysis.
  • Using Documents = 3. She used at least three of the documents successfully, but didn’t use a majority of the documents.
  • Sourcing = 3.  She successfully sourced one of her documents. This is actually a very high grade for a first paper, most students do not source their documents until paper number three or four.
  • Historical Content = 4. She used substantial and accurate background information to set the stage and establish the narrative of her paper.
  • Organization = 4. Clearly, she can write. She has good topic sentences and uses transitional words and phrases to drive her narrative. Her introduction and conclusion do more than simply restate the prompt.

So the paper score a 4- on the rubric, which is a B-. It’s quite good for a first paper. Becasue this was the first paper, the rubric grade was bumped 1.5 grades, which turned the B- into an A. And, incase you are wondering like many of my students do, in nearly ten years of teaching this curriculum, I have never read a true A paper for a student’s first effort.

There you go, dear reader. This is the benchmark. In a week’s time, I’ll share the final paper for this same student. I look forward to your comments.

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  • ReneeMoore

    Two Thumbs Up!

    Like this assignment and the rubric (thanks for sharing). Consider it borrowed.

  • Lisa Fricke


    As an English teacher, I love that other curricular areas integrate writing into their lesson plans.  I also, think using local history and resources create rich,  lifelong learning opportunities for students.  Unfortunately, because of excessive standardized testing I have had to give up some of my long-term projects.  Perhaps, the changes in the ESEA will allow time for the long term projects that integrate various academic areas with local history and community resources.                  Lisa Fricke, NE