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Friday, June 5, 2009

What Student Writing Teaches Us

When conducting my How to Teach a Novel workshop, I’m frequently asked how to best assess reading. I’ve recently noticed, however, that participants ask just as many questions about assessing student writing.

For that reason alone, I’m pleased to participate in the Blog Tour for Mark Overmeyer and his Stenhouse publication What Student Writing Teaches Us. This extremely practical yet highly informed book answers many of the questions I’ve asked myself over the past 20 years, or heard from my colleagues in teacher workshops.

Prior to Mark’s visit here on June 29th, I encourage you to check out the full book online at the Stenhouse site. As you read, jot down your thoughts and questions for the author and then send them my way. We’ll pose these questions to Mark when he visits this blog on June 29th. Don’t hold back! Don’t be shy! This is your chance to pick the brain of a guru who has spent countless hours in classroom, observing and interacting with teachers and students passionately engaged in the writing process.

Jeff Anderson remarks in the Foreword:

The focus of Mark’s book is the most important and often least talked about
facet of assessment: formative assessment. Formative assessment is,
specifically, assessment for learning versus assessment of learning.
When I’ve mentioned formative assessment in various training situations, I’ve been met with furrowed brows and tilted heads; the fact is, formative assessment is not nearly as well known nor as widely practiced as it should be. This book will prove a remedy for that void. In simplest terms, this book answers the complex question “How do we move from trying to evaluate every piece of writing to using writing as a basis for our teaching?” (p. xv)

Again, take the opportunity to read the whole book online. For those who’d like some highlights, however, here are just a few of the notes I jotted down as I read:

Chapter 1: Defining Assessment in the Writing Workshop
  • Three keys to success: modeling, clear expectations, and meaningful practice toward a standard.
  • High-stakes testing has too often caused us to equate assessment with a final grade or score.
  • Formative assessment should be used to adjust what students are doing and, perhaps more importantly, how they’re being taught.
  • Although formative assessment may change our teaching, it is in no way arbitrary; it is still guided by our expectations, knowledge of proven strategies, and standards.
  • Good assessment not only improves learning, it encourages students to believe in themselves as writers.
Chapter 2: Formative Assessment in Action: Setting the Stage for Success

  • Teachers who become automatons (my word) in service to their teaching guides will not see opportunities to improve students’ skills.
  • Good standards (IRA, NCTE) are not reductive and can be effective tools for planning.
  • In order to better meet students’ needs, we can change the variables of time, topic choice, and talk.
  • Limited topic choice may actually help some students.
  • Framed writing, too often considered “the bad guy,” can be a good thing if it offers multiple possibilities for story development.
  • In an exemplary writing class, kids will have the opportunities and the know-how to choose their own writing tools.
  • The origin of every successful class experience is the teacher’s purposeful planning, keeping all learners in mind.
  • Through an inquiry-based approach, the learners can assess their own learning as well as that of their peers. Teachers do not need to grade 100 papers each night to see this learning for themselves.
Chapter 3: Feedback as Formative Assessment

  • Rubrics have some liabilities (not news to me).
  • Rubrics are too often used simply as grading tools rather than learning tools.
  • Students and teachers can develop more user-friendly rubrics which will encourage growth as writers (and Mark shows us how).
  • Poetry, by its seemingly unstructured nature, is difficult to assess using rubrics (difficult, but not impossible).
  • Frequent conversations about assessment create a common language in the classroom.
  • Listening is perhaps more important than talking in student conferences.
  • Anecdotal notes can be even more telling than rubrics.
Chapter 4: Self-Assessment

  • Elementary and middle school classroom nee to be more like primary classrooms, where the writing process is truly a workshop.
  • Students should not simply set goals, but be taught how to choose methods to meet those goals.
  • Different students will find solutions to their writing needs through different resources.
  • Students can learn how to ask for the type of support they need.
Chapter 5: Grades

  • Grades based totally upon what students can accomplish with total independence are not accurate measures of students’ abilities.
  • Teachers must take the time to gather data in several ways.
  • Students who consistently under perform can be coached to greater success (and Mark explains how).
  • Creating multiple situations where students test quietly with no support is NOT test prep.
  • Grading does not need to be difficult or all-encompassing; students should clearly understand how the process works.
  • Dialogues with students about their writing can reveal much more than the writing itself about student skills.
  • Simple changes to present practice can create a balance in grading.
Chapter 6: Keeping Records, Keeping Track
  • Read student work with an eye for what to “admire.”
  • Positive approaches to assessment should replace energy-draining “error hunting.”
  • Looking for things to admire in student work will help teachers to better plan for writing conferences and mini-lessons. (Mark discusses other reasons for this more positive approach. He also shares a record sheet for writing samples which guides his assessment while helping him to note mini-lesson needs).
Every chapter is supported with real-life dialogues, bulleted summary lists, suggested forms and charts, and teaching models which can be easily replicated. For veteran and novice teachers alike, I highly recommend this book!

While at the Stenhouse site, be sure to check out the contest for teachers at the bottom of the page. For your quick, 500 word response to a prompt you can win an autographed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us when it becomes available in mid-July.

You can also check out my previous posts on Stenhouse titles at my How to Teach a Novel blog and my Teach with Picture Books blog (if using Internet Explorer, you may need to reload the page for this blog to appear properly).


Mrs. V said...

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?

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