Review of Poems Are Teachers by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Poems Are Teachers by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. How Studying Poetry

Poems Are Teachers: How Studying Poetry Strengthens Writing in All Genres

Written by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Published October 6, 2017 by Heinemman

264 pages

If you’d like this resource, you can support independent bookstores, and my classroom library, by purchasing this title through


About the Book: 

The book’s premise is summed up in its subtitle: the best way to learn how to write anything is to study poetry. As the book’s introduction states, with poetry, “readers can identify writing techniques after reading one page, not thirty” (XII). The book is organized in six sections: (1) finding ideas, (2) choosing point of view, (3) structure, (4) language, (5) leads/conclusions, and (6) titles. Each section is then broken down into many specific lessons related to that topic. For example, in the fifth section, the book explores four different types of leads and seven different types of conclusions. Each individual lesson starts with a poem that can be used to illustrate the technique. Then it includes words from the poet explaining the technique, a section from VanDerwater discussing the technique, suggestions from her to help students try out the technique, and finally a couple student poems that utilize the technique.

Why I Purchased This Resource:

When I first became a teacher, I waited until the end of the year to teach poetry while secretly hoping I’d get so far behind that I would get to skip it entirely. Then mostly through Nancie Atwell’s work, I learned that teaching poetry isn’t as difficult as it seemed, and I moved it to the start of the year. At first, I started with poetry mostly because she said to, but over time, I learned firsthand the benefits of using free-verse poetry to open our year of writing. Now, I start the year with poetry because of the foundation it creates for our year together as writers. I hoped this resource would enhance the work I was doing.

Recommended Audience: 

Anyone who teaches writing can gain some useful ideas from this book, although it is ideal for anyone who follows Atwell’s line of thinking and begins the year with free-verse poetry. While all writing teachers can gain something from the book, I would put grades 3-6 as its sweet spot. A lot of the example texts seem ideal for this age range, for instance. Still, though, there is plenty that I can use with my 7th graders too.

Some Thoughts: 

This book makes a good case for poetry being central to the study of writing, not a genre that teachers cover in April if they have time. As Jason Reynolds explained in an interview, “What I would say though to a prose writer is I look at [poetry] as this is the ballet. You learn ballet and you can do other dances because you learn the discipline…. And [poetry is] the greatest thing that I learned how to do because it helped me learn how to write prose.” This book helps us see how we can use poetry like this in our classrooms. For each specific lesson, we see how to help students recognize and then begin to use these techniques in their poetry, but then each chapter also provides numerous examples to show how this technique translates to other forms of writing too.

One downside to the book is that it isn’t always the most engaging. I think a lot of that is due to the format, though. Since each lesson is only a few pages long, there isn’t a connection from page-to-page and chapter-to-chapter to pull us along through the book. I’d compare it to reading a short story collection. These always take me longer to read than a novel does because there isn’t one continuous storyline pulling us along from beginning to end. Instead, we are continually starting over with a new story. As a result, this book did take me a lot longer to finish than a professional book would normally take.

Final Thoughts:

If you’re a teacher looking to add to your poetry toolbox, if you can’t figure out how to teach poetry, or if you want to unlock the potential of poetry to help your students write better in all genres, this is a worthwhile book to pick up.


Online Learning Reflection

I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, just over two weeks after we started online learning. When we started our break from school, we were in the middle of writing editorials, which we will share with each other and send to the New York Times editorial contest. Last week, students revised and shared them with me so I could give them feedback. At times, giving written feedback worked great, but I often found myself wishing I could just sit down next to the student and talk about it. 

There were also some cool moments, though, times when I was surprised and impressed by the solutions students found to some of their problems. I sent one girl a couple articles that I asked her to read before revising one part of her piece. When she sent it back to me, I was blown away by how she’d used those articles to deepen her understanding of the issue so that she could write about a sensitive topic with empathy while still making her case. Others found creative ways to fix some of the holes in their initial arguments, solutions that went above what I was expecting from them.

In reading, students have continued to read each day. On our last Friday together, students stocked up on books. About 200 were checked out that day, or an average of about five per student. Last week, when some students started to run out, they sent me their requests, and I went back into school for the first time to put together stacks for them. Some were placed in bags and left in the lobby for students to pick up. For those who couldn’t come to the school, I delivered the books to their front porch. Either way, they were able to replenish their selection of books without coming in contact with another person.

Once a week, students also send me an update with their current book, page number, and some of their thoughts. I respond, and then they write back to me. The purpose of this is to replace my daily check-ins while they read in class, and there have been some advantages to this, especially the extra time it gives students and me to think about our responses compared to when we have these conversations in class. I might even start doing this in some form when school goes back to normal. At the same time, though, it’s not the same thing as sitting down next to students while they read and having whispered conversations about their books.

And this has made these last two weeks exhausting. 

Yes, planning, recording short mini-lessons, giving feedback, answering all the emails, and doing all of that while my five- and two-year-old daughters ask me to play with them every five minutes have been a lot of work. And yes, I’ve been staying up way too late now that my alarm isn’t going off at 6:00 every morning. But teaching has always been a lot of work, and I’ve never gone to bed as early as I should. The difference is that now I’m not getting all of those daily interactions that refresh my work as a teacher. My class is built around pulling up my stool next to students’ desks or sitting down on the floor beside them so we can talk about how they’re doing, so we can discuss their writing or the great books they’re reading. And while I know technology provides many different ways for us to communicate, nothing can recreate the magic of sitting down beside a student for one of those whispered conversations. I even miss getting yelled at in the morning when I don’t say hi with enough enthusiasm.

If this is it, if we don’t return to school this year, that’s what I will miss most.

A More Collaborative Approach to Goal Setting

For many years, students in my class have worked towards writing and reading goals each quarter. In the past, the process worked like this: 

  1. I set specific categories within which students would have goals.
  2. Students came up with ideas for goals in those categories.
  3. I reviewed their ideas and suggested revisions as needed.
  4. We met so I could explain my suggested revisions. 

Goal categories: For writing, students’ process is assessed each quarter, and then they also set a goal related to sharing their writing with others and one related to an item from their individual editing checklist. In reading, everyone has a goal related to productivity/pace, one related to the genres they will try, and at least one related to letter-essays and roundtable discussions. The document students fill out ahead of time has way more categories than these because many students have one or two additional goals in a variety of areas.

Overall, this process was efficient and worked well. However, at the end of last year, a comment on a student survey made me reconsider our process. One of the questions I ask students is what they wish other adults, especially their parents and future teachers, understood about kids and reading. Most kids respond with ideas about the importance of choice and things like that, but one girl responded that kids can’t read every night because they have other things to do. 

In the past, I’m sad to say, I probably would’ve brushed this comment aside because it didn’t fit what I was looking for, and it’s also not true. I mean, most of my students do read every night, and everyone can find time when they could read. However, I started to think about what she wrote, and I thought about our approach to setting goals. In the past, when a student wasn’t reading as consistently as I wanted, I would usually add a goal related to this at the end of the quarter. The problem with this was that I was dictating the terms of the goal. And for a student who was on the fence about reading or even didn’t like reading, me dictating a goal about reading every night had the potential to do more harm than good. Plus, even though her perception about not having time to read might not have been accurate, it was still her perception, and I couldn’t just ignore that.

Should this student read more consistently? Sure. But what if, instead of me dictating the terms of the goal, we discussed it and created a goal together? So this year, I decided to make goal setting a more collaborative activity, rather than something the student does first, and then I do second. So when we reached the end of the quarter, I gave the students a document to help them brainstorm ideas for goals for second quarter. Then we met together and talked through the ideas. When it came to students who needed to read more consistently, I asked them to think about their schedules and to talk to me about the barriers that existed to them reading more. Then I asked them, What do think is possible? What do you want to shoot for? And we worked to create a goal together. 

Will this make a difference? I don’t know. But I felt better knowing that we had talked through everything. Nobody, I hope, walked out of that conference feeling like their goals had been decided for them. Instead, they were at least an equal participant in all of them, and in many cases, even more than that.

Creating Digital Portfolios

After creating physical portfolios in three-ring binders last year, I knew that I wanted to switch to digital ones this year. Over the summer I got suggestions through Twitter and ended up with a huge list of options. In August, I investigated as many of those suggestions as I could to try and find the best option. As I considered my options, I was primarily interested  in three things. Portfolios needed to be:

  • easy for students to create
  • easy to share with parents
  • quick for me to check


Easy for Students to Create: The previous year, when students were using three-ring binders, I gave them a list of documents to include. Remember that I was having assessment conferences while they did this, so I wasn’t monitoring them much while they worked. However,  I figured it would be pretty easy to print and photocopy what they needed. Sadly, I remember the feeling when I finished my last conference of the quarter and discovered how many students had nothing in their portfolios. Based on that experience, I wanted to be able to create a template that students where students would then just need to go through and plug in the necessary documents. I didn’t want to rely on written directions.

Easy to Share with Parents: One of the obvious downsides to a three-ring binder is that there isn’t any easy way to share them with parents unless students take them home. Even then, there’s no guarantee they will ever give them to parents, and then I also run the risk of them being lost. Plus, the previous year when I sent parents the teacher-evaluation form I typed up each quarter, I hated having to send individual emails with individual links every single quarter. I wanted something that would be quick and easy for parents to access.

Quick for Me to Check: I’ve already seen the work that students put in their portfolios, so I don’t need to reread all of it. I did, however, want to be able to check whether it was all there. I also wanted to be able to read the reflections students were adding about their work. As a result, I didn’t want a portfolio that relied on links. When trying to check a bunch of them for all my different students, I didn’t want to have to go through, click on every link, and then wait for every document to load so that I could make sure they had linked to the right document. 

After checking out all my options, I walked away with several possibilities but no clear cut choice. I hadn’t found anything that fit what I imagined in my mind. So towards the end of the quarter, I met with Heidi, our school’s tech person, to look over my options and see what she thought. She proved to be the perfect resource for me. After I explained my priorities, it took her about ten seconds to know exactly which tool I needed. 

When I asked my question on Twitter last summer, three people—@mariyakajan, @GinaBenz605, and @gregorystocco—had recommended Google Sites. However, something in our school’s Google set-up wouldn’t let me check out that option during the summer. Heidi immediately recognized that Google Sites would provide everything I was looking for. She gave me a quick tutorial on how to set one up, and I spent that weekend getting it ready. I set the site up for the whole year, so students will just come back and fill in the other parts each quarter. 

During the last week of the quarter, I shared my site with students and had them create a duplicate that would become their own. I then immediately cut off their access to my original site because a couple of them tried to start editing it instead of their copy. We also ran into some other problems. Students would insert the wrong file and not realize it right away. Others would accidentally delete a box where they were supposed to insert a file. Fortunately, I had one of our instructional specialists in my room all week to help students while I continued my assessment conferences. A few other students had a lot of trouble figuring it out, and I had to meet with them the next week to help them finish up. 

In the end, though, the work we put in was well worth it. As I reviewed their portfolios, I was so pleased with the end result. Now I just need to finish up my teacher-evaluation forms for the quarter so I can upload those. I can’t wait for students to publish and share the links with their parents on Monday.

If you’d like to see the template of the site students worked from, I’ve published a version of it here.

This Year’s Approach to Assessment Conferences

This is the first in a series of posts about our end-of-quarter assessment conferences. Some of the things mentioned here will be developed more in other posts, and I’ll link to those once they’re posted. 

Last year, as we began deciding students’ in end-of-quarter assessment conferences, I learned a ton. I still remember starting them for the first time. After a couple conferences I looked at the time on my computer and realized at my current rate, it would take me a couple weeks to meet with everyone. I did a lot of experimenting last year, trying to figure out how these conferences could be most effective while also being efficient. I also often found myself lamenting how the time we spent talking about their grades could have been spent, at least in my opinion, on more important things. 

So this year, I tried to find an approach that would allow enough time for all the conversations I wanted to have with students. We started the process on Wednesday during the eighth week of the nine-week quarter. The schedule is below (Day 1 is Wednesday, October 9 and Day 8 is Friday, October 18):

What We Did Together What Students Did on Their Own
1 Fill out the reading portion of our Assessment Conference Planning Sheet
2 Conferences to decide reading grades Fill out the writing portion of our Assessment Conference Planning Sheet; fill out reading and writing surveys similar to the ones they filled out at the start of the year
3 Conferences to decide writing grades Fill out sheet to brainstorm possible reading and writing grades for 2nd quarter
4 Conferences to discuss first quarter, their identities as readers and writers, and their goals for 2nd quarter Work on portfolios
5 Conferences to discuss first quarter, their identities as readers and writers, and their goals for 2nd quarter Work on portfolios
6 Conferences to discuss first quarter, their identities as readers and writers, and their goals for 2nd quarter Work on portfolios
7 Conferences to discuss first quarter, their identities as readers and writers, and their goals for 2nd quarter Work on portfolios
8 Conferences are mostly finished Finish portfolios

The grading conferences went fast, and I was able to get them done in two days. Some kids were only at my desk for 15-30 seconds because I looked over their ideas and evidence in their planning sheet, and their assessment matched mine. We intentionally finished these as quickly as possible because we knew that the next week we were going to sit down for a longer conversation. 

During those longer conversations, I spent ten to fifteen minutes with each student. Since we were on a weird schedule that week, my classes were shorter and it took a bit longer to get through everyone than it would have otherwise. As we met, we looked over the surveys they filled out, talking about things that had changed since the start of the year and also some things that hadn’t. For students who still answered no to the questions Are you a reader? or Are you a writer? we talked about the barriers that existed for them, in other words the things that would need to change for them to think of themselves as readers or writers. We talked about their perceptions of their writing and a whole host of other things depending on the student. Lastly, then, we looked over the sheet they filled out about possible goals and agreed upon their goals for second quarter.

The opportunity to sit down with each student for an uninterrupted ten or fifteen minutes was invaluable. I asked a lot of questions and took a lot of notes as I listened. I walked away with a better understanding of each kid and also with lots of ideas for how to work with them during the upcoming quarter. While it will look slightly different next quarter, we will again make time for these conversations next quarter, and I’m excited to see how this time will continue to impact my work with each student. 

Parent Videos

At the start of the school year, I wrote about some of the letters I send home to parents throughout the early part of the school year. While the specific letters have changed a bit at times, this has been my standard method of introducing my class and myself to parents and caregivers. I would sometimes send out subsequent emails to fill them in on what we were doing in class, but those tended to slow down or even stop as the year went on. This year, I’m trying something different to keep parents informed about what we’re doing as a class throughout the year. Inspired by Rebekah O’Dell’s post at Moving Writers about her parent videos (check it out if you haven’t seen it), I decided to do the same this year.

At the start of each new genre study in writing, as well as when we’re starting something else that’s new, my plan is to record a short video that will introduce the genre and why we’re studying it. I send each one to all parents and guardians, as well as my administration. So far, I’ve recorded two, one introducing our opening study of free-verse poetry and another explaining a bit about our roundtable discussions and letter-essays in reading workshop. My next one, which I’m about to record, will explain more about the process we use for our assessment conferences and portfolios at the end of the quarter. Shortly after, I’ll send one home to introduce our next genre study in writing, which is memoir. 

I’ve read about other teachers communicating through video in the past, but I was always a bit hesitant to try it as I’m much more comfortable communicating through writing. However, something about reading Rebekah’s post and watching her videos got me excited to try this. For parents who haven’t met me yet, these videos give them a chance to see me, hear my voice, and, I hope, begin to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. 

I also think these videos will help me reach more parents. Parents are pretty involved at our school overall, so it’s possible that most of them were reading the letters I sent home. At the same time, I could never be sure how many parents read them, and I suspect that some who didn’t read my letters will watch the videos. Plus, since I’m posting them through YouTube I can actually see how many views each one gets. This doesn’t tell me definitively what percentage of families are watching them as some families might have more than one person watching at different times, but I can at least get an idea. I’ve already started to think about using these to communicate at least some of the information that went out in my various letters in past years.

Below is the first video I recorded, which introduced our study of free-verse poetry and why we begin the year with this.


The Reading Zone

This past week was rough. Due to a number of factors, some within my control and some outside of it, we did not have as much time to read and write in class on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday as what we normally do. I hate weeks like that, and, while I’m not quite sure how best to explain it, I feel off when I don’t have enough time to sit down and talk with my readers and writers. So Thursday, our last day of classes this week, I made a few changes. I dropped the booktalks I was going to do and chose a different picture book to read, one that was shorter than the one I had planned. I made sure that we had plenty of time to read and write. I felt so much better by the end of the day after I’d had the chance to sit down next to almost every child and talk about the books they were reading and also to confer with a large number of the writers in my classes. 

I also felt good for another reason. My last block had the roundtable discussion that my other classes had the week before. It was such a blessing to witness this conversation, as it was the previous week when I got to listen to my other two classes have this discussion. Our discussion focused on these questions: How do you know you are in the reading zone? When you are in the reading zone, what happens? What is it like to be in the reading zone?

Our discussion is built around an article by Thomas Newkirk entitled “Literacy and Loneliness” that was published in The Ohio Journal of English Language Arts. In this article he talks about something he calls “the reading state.” Taking a cue from Nancie Atwell, we rename it the reading zone, but the concept stays the same. In the article he talks about the experience of entering this state and how a big divider between readers and nonreaders is that readers understand what it’s like to enter the reading state while nonreaders don’t. As a result, they don’t understand what the attraction is to reading. He asserts that “the goal of reading instruction is not the mastery of specific texts, but that of enabling students to enter the reading state. … As teachers, our loyalty should be to the state of reading, not to particular texts which may or may not make that journey possible.” I agree with this idea wholeheartedly, which is a large reason why my students choose their books.

Near the end of the article, he says that we need to find a language to talk about the reading state and what enables us to enter it. So, that’s exactly what we do with this discussion. I introduce the topic by reading parts of the article with students and then sharing our questions for the week. They prepare like they do for all roundtable discussions, and then at the end of the week students talk.

In all three classes I was blown away. Not everyone experiences the reading zone in the same way, and different students have different conditions that make it easier or harder to enter it when they read, but I love listening to them describe what it’s like when they enter the reading zone and what books have taken them there.

This discussion also has a lot of important implications for students. It’s important that they know themselves and what they need to enter the reading zone. It’s also a helpful way to evaluate books. If a book isn’t taking a student to the reading zone, the student should probably abandon it.

There are also a lot of implications for how we set up our reading classes. If, as Newkirk argues, the goal of a reading class is to help students experience the reading zone as often as possible, we need to be doing our best to create the conditions that our students need to enter it. 

Access to lots of books is, of course, important. Many students also need comfortable seating and the right to sit anywhere they want in the classroom. A student also mentioned needing enough time. She said it takes her a while to get into the reading zone, so if she doesn’t have at least fifteen minutes to read, it’s hard for her to enter.

Yesterday, another girl made an important observation. She said that when she enters the reading zone, she doesn’t think about it; it just happens. I’ve always been a bit skeptical of the comprehension strategy movement when it comes to reading fiction. While we can teach students strategies for navigating challenging texts, ones with complex structures, lots of characters, or multiple narrators, forcing students to constantly stop reading to record their thinking on Post-its is going to make entering the reading zone more difficult, as would anything that disrupts the flow of the text.

This link will take you to my notes, which are compiled from all three classes’ discussions. I added the quote at the top and the concluding section at the end; all the other notes from students’ comments during the discussion. I’d invite you to take a look at their thinking and then have this conversation with your students too. 

A Question for Writing Conferences

This year as I started working with a new group of writers, I made some changes to the first few weeks of school. This led to changes in my early writing conferences too. One of my goals for the year is to more consistently and enthusiastically point out the good things I see in students’ writing. In an effort to be as efficient with writing conferences as possible and thus confer with as many students as possible each day, I have a tendency to get right into what they need help with and making suggestions, and I neglect to point out all the great things I see them doing. So this year, I didn’t make any suggestions for the first few weeks. Instead, I focused on the good things I saw. 

This also gave me space to ask a specific question a lot in my early conferences: Why did you make this change? or Why did you make this choice? I’ve asked this question in conferences before but not nearly as much as I have this year. As I’ve listened and taken notes on students’ responses, I’ve realized how important this question is. Now, I’m more interested in how students answer this question than I am in whether or not I think they made a good choice. 

At the start of the year, most of my students aren’t that knowledgeable when it comes to the features of good writing. Many of them associate good writing with neatness and correctness. They have a lot to learn when it comes to crafting writing effectively, and they will learn a lot about this over the course of the year. Thus, at the start of the year, as long as they are making purposeful choices and purposeful revisions, I’m happy because I know that if they continue doing this, their ability to make good choices is going to develop over the course of the year. 

This relates to how students are assessed in my writing workshop. The primary assessment criteria is their commitment to the process, not whether their writing is good or not. The reasoning behind this is simple: if I want student writing to improve, it improves through the work they put into the piece. In the same way, the thinking behind their choices is more important than if they happen to make the right choice on any single piece of writing.

Here’s an example. I recently conferred with a girl about a poem she was writing about a moment in a basketball game. She chose to write the poem in second person, using you. Now I generally advise students to avoid this. I even teach a mini-lesson, modeled after Nancie Atwell’s, on the importance of a strong I presence in their poetry. In the past, I probably would have encouraged her to try a draft of the poem using I. This year, though, I asked her why she made this choice, and then I listened. She took me through her thought process, and I discovered that this was a decision she had not made lightly. She had a definite purpose for choosing to write using you. In the end, I still probably would have made a different choice than she did, but that’s ok. If she continues making purposeful choices, I know she’s going to develop tremendously as a writer as the year goes on and she grows in her knowledge of craft.

1st Quarter Reading Roundtable Discussions

If you weren’t at my NerdCamp session and would like more of an introduction to roundtable discussions before reading this, you can find it here.

We have just moved past the halfway point of our first quarter, and we’ve completed four of the five roundtable topics in our first group. My first set, which we use to introduce important aspects of our reading workshop, stayed mostly the same as last year, but I did eliminate one topic from the list. Our first five topics are listed below. The links are to the notes that I typed up from the discussions. I wrote the introductions and, sometimes, conclusions, but the rest of the lists come from students during the discussions.

  1. How do you know a book will be good before you read it? In other words, when considering a book, what steps might you take in order to decide if it’s one you want to read?
  2. What are the signs to abandon a book? How long should you wait before abandoning it? What strategies do you use to make sure you should or shouldn’t abandon it?
  3. What are the features of effective letter-essays?
  4. How do you know you are in the reading zone? When you are in the reading zone, what happens? What is it like to be in the reading zone?
  5. How do you know the genre of a book? What are the defining characteristics of each genre?

I’ve been beyond thrilled with how they’ve gone so far. Many years, especially last year, the first several discussions are almost painful to witness. I can remember many occasions last year where someone would share, and then we would sit there for 30 seconds or more waiting for someone to raise their hand to reply. It was bad. This year, though, it’s been completely different. Almost everyone is contributing to each discussion, and most students are commenting multiple times. 

This past week, my first two blocks discussed the reading zone. To introduce this topic we read parts of Thomas Newkirk’s article “Literacy and Loneliness.” As my middle block discussed this topic, I was amazed at how smoothly they moved between different aspects of this topic, following the discussion where it took them. At one point, they were discussing the role that genre plays in making it easier or harder to enter the reading zone. Some thought fantasy made it easier while others thought it was easier with realistic fiction. Someone said it was easier with realistic fiction because they could relate to what the main character was going through. After discussing this for a bit, a girl raised her hand and said she had just realized something: oftentimes, fantasy novels take real-life situations and problems and apply them to fantasy worlds, meaning that fantasy can be just as relatable as realistic fiction. I was so thrilled by the connection she made, and the many other insights that emerged from our discussion.

I’ve also learned some important things about these students from our discussions. During the discussion on when to abandon a book, I realized that we need strategies for reading books with multiple narrators or that follow multiple main characters. Also, a number of students talked about abandoning books early on because they were confused. We need to read some beginnings together that are a bit confusing so that students can learn that it often takes a little while to begin feeling comfortable with new characters, new problems, and new worlds.

This week, one class will be discussing the reading zone (because they were writing their first letter-essay last week), and then over the next two weeks each class will be discussing and defining the characteristics of different genres. With the promising start we’ve gotten off to, I know these discussions are going to be a rich way for this year’s students to learn from each other and to collectively construct knowledge about books and reading.


How I’m Using Our Online Gradebook Even Though I’m not Grading

Last year, when deciding to eliminate traditional grading from my classes as much as I was allowed to, one of my big decisions was how to use our online gradebook, which I was required to keep updated throughout each quarter. I believe it was Joy Kirr who made the suggestion to use the comment/note feature to share feedback on assignments with parents. It was something that seemed so obvious after she mentioned it, but I hadn’t thought of it up to that point. So that became the main purpose of my entries.

In reading, I entered the letter-essays students wrote every month about a book they recently finished, the prep they did for our roundtable discussions, and their contributions to the actual discussions. Each entry was only a couple points, which didn’t get factored into the final grade at all, and then I pasted a shortened version of the feedback students were receiving about each assignment.

In writing, I began entering an update every week or two, providing a brief summary of what the student was working on in writing workshop that week and what we talked about when I conferred with that writer that week. I also added entries for any genres we studied as writers that quarter so parents could be updated on pieces they were finishing.

This year, I’m starting to think about how I might expand the uses of our online gradebook as a communication tool. For example, this Friday, I had students fill out a reading reflection for the first time, focusing only on their reading outside of class. As part of this reflection I asked them to give themselves a reading homework grade for the first four weeks. This grade is, of course, not going to directly impact their final grade since we won’t sit down and decide that until the end of the quarter, but since the numbers I enter in the gradebook don’t impact the final grade, I’m going to enter this grade so that parents can see how their kids assessed themselves, and then I’ll add my comments along with the score. 

I’m curious to see what other ways I might be able to use this to keep sharing more information with parents this year.