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Monday, June 29, 2009

What Student Writing Teaches Us: The Blog Tour

Today I have the pleasure of hosting Mark Overmeyer's Blog Tour for his Stenhouse publication What Student Writing Teaches Us. This fabulous new book (see my full review in the post below) answers many of the questions teachers have about using formative assessments to improve student writing. I also challenged readers of this blog to send in questions for the author which might not have been addressed in the book.(For those of you who haven't checked it out yet, you'll find the full book online at the Stenhouse site).

I was surprised at the in-depth responses Mark provided for the questions sent in. Check out the questions and Mark's answers below, and be sure to grab a copy of his book when it becomes available.

Next year I am planning on using the areas listed on our state writing rubric (ideas and content, organization, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions) to be the main form of assessing most of my student writing, whether it is to assess just one of the areas (or subcategories within an area) or to look at student writing as a whole throughout the year. I thought of setting it up similar to the CAFE Menu for reading.I thought it would be helpful since we would build common language about writing and it would help students to evalauate their own writing and their peers better. It would also help me to see student progress over time. I am still trying to think through the process before school starts next year though. Do you think this will be effective or do you have any words of caution for the route I am going? (from Mrs. V)

You ask a great question - one I have thought about often as I teach writers of all ages...

I think your idea of using qualities such as ideas and content, organization, word choice, etc. to help students self assess is a good one, and not just because these categories are listed on your state writing rubric. I think this is a logical move on your part because strong writing does, in fact, contain these elements. Like you, I teach students to be aware of their progress in using these qualities or traits in their writing - and my state rubric also evaluates student success based on these factors.

One piece of advice I can provide that I hope will help you: Try to always think of writing instruction as "whole to part" first, not "part to whole."

Years ago, when I first used the traits you mention in my writing instruction, I based all of my mini-lessons on the qualities of writing, but I did not always provide a context. So, since I love word choice lessons, I spent two to three weeks on word choice. I also like to teach sentence fluency, so I typically followed the word choice work with fluency mini-lessons.

Were my students engaged?


Did they improve as writers?

I am not convinced they did improve as much as they could have because I was teaching part to whole.

Now, I always provide a context for any mini-lesson about a particular writing trait. For example, if I am asking my students to write personal essays, we first study models of this genre, and then we begin generating ideas and writing drafts. Once we have begun the genre study, I can infuse mini-lessons about word choice, organization, and sentence fluency that are genre specific. Word choice is not the same in a poem as it is in an essay, or a persuasive letter, or a lab report. All traits are genre specific, and when we think of genre first, we are thinking "whole to part."

When I plan now for any type of writing, regardless of the length or complexity of the writing students will produce, I answer the following question: "What am I asking students to write?" (or, as Katie Wood Ray once phrased it when I heard her speak: "Ask yourself: What are we asking our student writers to make?")

When I focus my word choice, organization, and sentence fluency mini-lessons on specific genres, my work is much clearer, more "true" to real-world writing, and more focused on the "whole" rather than the "parts". And, in my experience, students become much stronger writers who are able to more easily self-assess their progress.

For more information about this type of instruction, read Katie Wood Ray's brilliant book
Study Driven. I use it regularly as I plan for all ages of writers.

I hope this helps! Take care, and good luck! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

This question is related to student writing, but not so related to the topic of your book. But I would appreciate if you had any advice. I teach 6th grade Language Arts. Any suggestions for how to most effectively use five classroom computers for in-class writing? Too often I see my colleagues having their students using the computers simply as word processors (typing up final drafts). I'm hoping to make them a bigger part of our writing process. Suggestions or thoughts?
(from Colleen in New Hampshire)

Thank you for your question.

Here are a few ideas, and a resource I hope can help you with further suggestions. While technology is not always my strength, I am lucky enough to work in a district that provides a lot of staff development on technology and literacy. I take advantage of these courses and workshops whenever I can!
Some thoughts:
  1. Use the computer for different types of "final copies", such as podcasts. Podcasts are relatively simple (if I can do them, anyone can!) and they are best created in small groups anyway. Teachers I know who are most successful using podcasts discover which students in the class already have some expertise in creating them. These students can become tech experts as other students create their podcasts. Podcasts work well for genres such as personal essays, photo essays, and any type of research-based writing that can include photos and voice-overs.
  2. Ask students to use the computers to participate in blogs or wikis as they respond to each other about the literature they are reading. Five students per day per class period can spend some time on the blog or wiki, and this can become part of the way your students respond to each other's thoughts and ideas. It's like an online discussion. You can also use blogs and wikis for students to respond to each other's writing.
  3. If you ever use quick write exercises, consider using visual prompts on the computer screen for students to respond to. They can write for 5 to 10 minutes after looking at a photo or video clip to practice descriptive or narrative writing. If you try this, then each day, five different students can respond to the visual prompt. By the end of the week, everyone will have had a chance.
Sara Kajder has a wonderful book out about how to use computers effectively in the classroom. Sara's book is called Bringing the Outside In, and you should check out her website as well. If you ever have the chance to see her speak in person, by all means go. She taught me so much at IRA a few years ago.

I hope this helps! Take care, and good luck!

Mark: I read through the book and got some great ideas. I'd like to know what other books and sites you would personally recommend to a new Reading/LA teacher who will be teaching average ability students in grades 5-7. (from Karen)
Thank you - I am glad you found the book helpful.
Here are some books that I highly recommend, annotated briefly:

  1. Study Driven by Katie Wood Ray. I cannot recommend this book more highly for helping you to create solid, genre based units of study. In Chapter One, the first description of a fifth grade classroom studying commentary made me rethink everything I do with all students. Katie Wood Ray not only helps us to raise the bar for all our students, she helps us find interesting genres for students to study. I have read this book twice per year for the past three years for courses I teach, and each time I read it, I find new nuggets of wisdom.
  2. The No-Nonsense Guide to Teaching Writing by Judy Davis and Sharon Hill is full of great ideas for setting up and maintaining a writing workshop, and includes a curriculum map for the year. I have used it many times as a resource, and I especially like their suggestions about writer's notebooks and teaching poetry. Bruce Morgan's book Writing Through the Tween Years will support your work if you are interested in learning more about using mentor texts and student interest to drive your writing instruction. You also need to know about Kelly Gallagher's excellent Teaching Adolescent Writers. He takes on many of the same topics as Bruce Morgan and Davis / Hill, but he provides more concrete suggestions about grading, developing mini-lessons and helping students to self edit. If you have some structures already set up in the writing workshop and want a troubleshooting guide about conferences, reluctant writers, helping students edit, and other topics, my first book is called When Writing Workshop Isn't Working: Answers to Ten Tough Questions, Grades 2-5. (I always hesitate to recommend my own books when I am asked this question, but many teachers in upper elementary and middle school have told me my book helped them refine their workshops...)
  3. If you want resources on teaching grammar in context, look no further than Jeff Anderson's Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer's Workshop and Everyday Editing. These two books finally help us answer the question about how to embed skill instruction in the writing classroom without resorting to error-correction exercises and worksheets. They deserve a place on every language arts teacher's shelf!
  4. For reading instruction, I must recommend Cris Tovani's classic I Read It, but I Don't Get It. Though she works with struggling and reluctant adolescent readers, I used this book when I taught gifted fifth and sixth graders with great results. Cris's book helped me to understand how important it is for all readers to establish a clear purpose for reading, and she also helped me see that all readers need to know when meaning is breaking down. When meaning breaks down, we have to know it first, and then change our strategy - and she provides practical, classroom-tested suggestions. I use Cris's techniques with all ranges of readers, from struggling to on-grade level to gifted.
Happy reading! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

All best -

I know that the old adage says, "Write what you know." I also accept that students will write more enthusiastically about topics that have meaning to them personally. But how can we wean them off of such egocentric writing into areas which may not relate to them personally? (from E-man)
This is a great question, and one I have pondered for at least 20 years.

"Write what you know" seems like a simple adage, but it does not provide simple answers to the problems we may encounter as writing teachers.

As a teacher of writing, when I focus solely on topic choice, some writers improve, and others don't. I will fully admit that maybe I am doing something wrong in my instruction, but I am just speaking from many years of experience when I say topic choice alone does not necessarily make for great writing experiences for all students.

The more I work with students, the more convinced I am that "write what you know" fits best within a genre study.

So now, I work within what I call a "framed choice" while we study a specific genre.

For example, when I return to school in the fall, I am going to support primary students as they write poetry, intermediate students as they write personal essays,, and high school students as they write restaurant or music reviews.

The choices they make will "live" inside these specific genres, and I find this provides more opportunities for success because when we study the same genre as a class, we can all become more clear about how to be successful in this genre.

The book that has influenced me greatly in my work with genre studies is Katie Wood Ray's
Study Driven. I cannot tell you how much it has transformed my thinking with all the writers I work with, from kindergarten to graduate school. The best part is that I see a lot more energy from all these writers as well, and their self assessment of their own work has convinced me that genre studies are the way to go. Many, many writers have told me that they start to think of many new topic ideas when they become clear about how genres work.

My advice if you are working with fourth graders through high school is to NOT begin the year with personal narratives. Try out a completely different genre - maybe begin the year with personal essay (for a mentor text, see the last piece in Charles R. Smith's book
Rimshots where he talks about his influences) or commentary (see multiple suggestions for how to use commentary in the classroom in the first chapter of Katie Wood Ray's book Study Driven). In my experience for the last five years, new genres bring out new topics, and new excitement.
Wow! Thanks for taking the time to reply in such detail, Mark! I especially appreciate the book suggestions, since I'm always looking for proven practices from my colleagues in the field.
Thanks to all who sent in questions, and let's keep up the dialogue! There's a lot we can learn from each other.


Sanford said...

Keith, the main thing is that we need to focus on basic principles, in writing and teaching. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

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