Assessment Criteria in Our Writing-Reading Workshop

Earlier this year, I wrote about my assessment plan for the year, one that involved assessing students without giving grades to individual assignments. If you haven’t read that first post, you can find it here. My school still uses traditional report cards, so in that post, I wrote about how we’ll determine students grades: during the self-assessment students do, they’ll determine the grade they think they deserve and collect evidence to justify this grade. Then, we will meet for an assessment conference to discuss their grades, along with their goals for the upcoming quarter. These conferences will take place about a week before the actual end of first quarter, giving me more time to prepare my teacher-evaluation for each student and getting them started working toward their goals a week earlier.

This initial post and the attached document outlined most of my plan except for the criteria we would use to determine grades. Deciding on the criteria to use was easy in writing, but it took a lot of thought for me to make my final decision in reading. My goal was to keep the list of criteria as short and simple as possible, meaning that if I wasn’t sure about including something, I chose to leave it off the first-quarter list. Below are the criteria I settled on for writing and reading.

 

Writing Criteria for 1st Quarter:

  • Productivity: Our workshop doesn’t have specific due dates for everyone, so students don’t all finish the same number of pieces. My baseline expectation is for students to complete at least three, but there’s flexibility with this, and I don’t think I’ll share this with them before they’ve done their self-assessments.
  • Process: Students will show evidence of their engagement in planning, revising, and editing, with specific focus on the last two. I’m not giving them any specific guidelines, but I want them to show a commitment to engaging in the process.
  • Purpose: Students will show evidence of choosing topics that matter to them and will show growth in topic choice from their first piece to their last. Later in the year we will also look at how students take advantage of publication opportunities inside and outside the classroom and how they write for specific purposes (e.g. writing a poem or memoir with a specific person in mind). Finding their own purposes for their writing and writing to be read by others are both major emphases in our workshop.
  • Use of Writing Mini-Lessons: This is the closest we come to grading the quality of students writing. I do ask students to assess the quality of their writing, identifying their best pieces and what makes those pieces the best, but we won’t grade the quality of their work. Instead, students will show evidence that they’ve taken the concepts from our mini-lessons and used them in their writing.

In later quarters, grades will also be based on the progress students make towards their goals as writers. Many of these goals will come from the areas described above, but students might also have goals in other areas, such as their contributions to our discussions of the mentor texts we read.

 

Reading Criteria for 1st Quarter:

  • Letter-Essays: Students write one letter-essay a month about a book they have recently finished. The letter-essays are based on what Nancie Atwell, and now her daughter Anne, have their students write at the Center for Teaching and Learning. This is a kind of writing that is brand new to most of my students, so when we assess these first quarter, we’re only looking to see if they have included the necessary elements and met the basic requirements.
  • Prep for Roundtable Discussions: These are whole-class discussions we have once a week (except when it’s that class’s letter-essay week). These are based on what Glenn Powers, also a teacher at CTL, does with his students as a way to include whole-class conversations in a room where students choose their books. Students’ prep for these discussions is the only type of writing we do where I give them a specific format to follow, so our first-quarter assessment is mostly looking at whether or not they’ve followed that format, with special focus on the examples students use to support their opinions.
  • Contributions to Roundtable Discussions: Here we are looking at what students share during the discussions and also the listening they do using the sheet they fill out while the discussions are happening.
  • Commitment to Reading Outside of Class: This isn’t a major factor in this quarter’s assessment (I’ll work with each student to create a goal in this area for second quarter), but I still want students to grade what they’ve done so far.

 

As I mentioned earlier, it was harder for me to make the final decision about the reading criteria. I thought about including criteria related to other important aspects of class, such as their choice of books, making recommendations to others, and keeping their reading record updated (not a nightly log but instead a list of the books they finish or abandon). However, I eventually decided against including these during first quarter. Students will still reflect on these things throughout the quarter and at the end, but they won’t be factored into their grades. Instead, we’ll use what they do first quarter as the basis for setting goals during second quarter.

One other note: I made the decision to not talk to students about these criteria yet. These are things that have been emphasized in class, students know what is expected, and they’ve been getting feedback in these areas, but if the goal of our assessment plan is to focus on grades as little as possible, I decided against going over these things with them ahead of time. In about a week and a half, I’ll introduce the criteria to students, and they’ll start the formal self-assessment process for the first time. I’m sure that will be a topic I’ll write about in a couple of weeks.

 

Creating Preview Stacks for Students

   

With the stacks of books pictured above, I have now finished my initial preview stacks for this year. I liked this idea when I first read about it in Reading in the Wild by Donalyn Miller, but it was a little intimidating to think about the time it might take to put together a stack of books for every single student. I’m glad I decided to try it, though, because the time it takes is well worth it.

I hand out these stacks during the second week of school. By this point, each student has chosen his or her first book—or in the case of one boy this year, his twentieth. Some students in my class have little or no experience choosing books for themselves, so our class has also created a list of ways to “interview” books, a term I borrowed from Glenn Powers at Nancie Atwell’s school, CTL. I use two surveys—one about them as readers and one just about them—to create stacks for  three to five students per block per day, however many I need to do to get done in a week. I give students time to look through the stacks and then follow up with them about the books they liked and didn’t like.

This is a great way to start the year for each student, avid readers and nonreaders alike. For students who don’t have an independent reading life, this stack offers hope. As they see promising titles—books written about topics that interest them or that fit their backgrounds, maybe ones that don’t look too intimidating—these students can, maybe for the first time, think that there might be books out there that are right for them. For avid readers, on the other hand, this is a dream scenario: the chance to look through stacks of books chosen specifically with them in mind. It’s cool to see the anticipation build as students wait for it to be their day. The stacks also begin to build trust between us, showing students that I’m interested in each of them as an individual and that I’m familiar with a wide variety of books.

Last year, I started typing lists of which books I put on each student’s stack. This year I also started marking all the ones students added to their Someday Books Lists. I also want to use stacks purposefully with individual students throughout the year. I might use a stack to stretch a reader or help him or her accomplish a reading goal, either to encourage them towards more challenging books or to expand to a new genre.

This year, I noticed a number of students who didn’t add as many books as what students normally do, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last week or so. I usually try to get all stacks done by the end of the second week. However, I’m wondering if next year I should spread it out more, maybe do one or two students a day in each block so that I can sit down with each of them and talk to them more about each book, explaining a bit more about why I thought he or she would like it. This would have the added bonus of easing the workload during that second week because getting ten to fifteen stacks ready for each day is exhausting. I’m not sure yet, but this will be something I’ll keep thinking about for next year.

 

Modeling a Writer’s Process

For writing teachers, the importance of modeling our writing for our students is well established. It’s important because of the insights it gives students into the act of writing and also because, if it’s done authentically, it gives us credibility with students because they know we are writers ourselves. One of the best ways to establish this with a new group of students early in the year is an idea I got from Nancie Atwell at a workshop years ago. During the second week of school, I give students a copy of a poem—the first genre we study—that I’ve written. In addition to my final draft, though, I scan copies of everything: my notes, each draft with all my revisions, and anything else I did to get from my initial idea to my finished piece.

In what becomes one of our longest mini-lessons of the year, students go through the drafts and come up questions about changes I made to the poem, choices I made as I wrote it, or anything about my process. Then, they interview me. As they listen to my answers, they list ideas in response to this question: What things might a poet do when trying to write a good poem? I collect their lists at the end and type them together into one master list for class the next day. Then, we tape these into our Writing-Reading Handbooks and read through them for the next day’s mini-lesson.

I love this activity for several reasons:

  • It shows me as a writer with real intentions. The piece I share with students is always something I would have written anyway, and they get to see how I use poetry in real life, not just in school.
  • It shows them what the writing process might look like in real life, not the neat five-step process they’re often taught in the elementary grades. They get to see what kinds of things they might do in our writing workshop that is largely free of deadlines, how messy the process often gets and how they can work through it.
  • Seeing all of the revisions I made along the way shows students that revising is something writers do. As a result, most students revise their writing right from the start of the year. I might occasionally have issues getting a student to revise, but it’s usually not a result of the student being unwilling. Rather, that student usually can’t yet recognize how to improve a piece.
  • It exposes them to lots of craft decisions right away, ones that we’ll return to and talk about in more detail as the year goes on. While students will usually need more time to begin incorporating these techniques into their own writing, it still gets them thinking about these things right from the start.
  • The list provides them with a resource to use early in the year before we’ve covered much ground as writers. When they get stuck for what to work on next, they can consult the list to see if there’s anything on there they haven’t thought about yet.

This time of studying the packet, interviewing me, and compiling their observations forms a great foundation for the writing we’ll do together each year.

If you’d like to see the poem I used this year, click here. And if you’d like to see the list this year’s classes created, you can see that here. I give these to you as a reference, but I’d discourage you from copying them and giving them to students. The value in the list comes from the way we created it together. Also, when I typed up this list, I kept the students’ wording as much as I could, but they are still in the early stages of learning a lot of the vocabulary we will use to talk about poems and other pieces of writing all throughout the year. As a result, I sometimes change their language on this document as a way to continue introducing some of these terms in context.