One of the things I have wrestled with a lot over the years is the best way to assess writing. I believe the most important thing for writers, beyond finding topics and purposes for their writing that matter to them, is that they invest in the process. I want students to put in the work that will allow them to write to the best of their ability. I teach several mini-lessons throughout the year related to process, and a great feature of our writing workshop is that it provides students with the freedom from deadlines that allows them to develop their own process over the course of the year.
I don’t teach the simple five-step process that I learned in school. Instead, I show them how messy my process can be as a writer, the work that sometimes goes on before I start a first draft, the way my writing can undergo multiple drafts and revisions along the way, and how I trust the process to help me find direction for a piece when I’m not sure exactly where it’s headed. I also let my students know that every writer works a little bit differently. By the end of the year, my students, who had little experience with writing as a process before seventh grade, have all, or mostly all, figured out how they work best and are confident in their abilities to work through the problems that inevitably will arise with most pieces of writing. Some students organize their ideas using a mixture of text and pictures; some write down extensive notes before starting a first draft; others get an initial idea and then dive in and see where it goes. Many of them do a different things depending on the needs of each individual piece.
This process, then, is what I’ve always felt should be the main focus of writing assessment, rather than the quality of the final product. If I want students’ final products to improve, it’s investing in the process that will allow that to happen. If everyone’s process is different, though, then it’s a complex thing to try and grade.
During fourth quarter this year, I decided to go ahead and try to do it. I eliminated all but two categories of writing goals. Then, the other criteria was they they show “a clear commitment to the process” with each piece. On the first day of the quarter, I explained all of this to them, and then I asked them to create a list of ways they could show a commitment to the process. Here’s what they came up with:
- a list with plenty of ideas for possible topics
- writing off-the-page that gathers and organizes ideas before drafting or helps figure out a so what?
- experimenting with different leads or conclusions
- multiple double-spaced drafts with significant revisions, both large-scale and small-scale:
- add words, ideas, information
- cut unnecessary words, ideas, or information
- replace words with other (better) ones
- experiment with the order or form of lines/stanzas or sentences/paragraphs
- peer conference form that shows you seeking out feedback from others
- an edited double-spaced draft with plenty of corrections made, over time leaving fewer mistakes uncorrected
- a list with multiple brainstormed titles
When it came time for our final assessment conferences of the year, I asked students to go through their writing, compile evidence of the different things they did throughout the quarter, and then to decide what grade they think they earned based on that evidence.
Overall, it actually wasn’t bad. There were a couple students who claimed they earned higher grades when the evidence clearly wasn’t there to support that. I had to remind students a couple times, for example, that if we had to hunt through all their drafts searching for examples of revisions, that wasn’t showing a clear commitment to revising. But overall, we mostly agreed on the final grade, like we had all year.
Next year, when I introduce this early in the year, the one thing that will change is that my students will not be able to create the list I included above in September. But I think that’s okay. We’ll put together a list at the beginning of the year, and then each quarter, we’ll add to it as students gain a greater understanding of the things they might do as writers to help them make their writing better. It will be a complex thing to grade, but one of the great things about these assessment conferences is that they provide a venue for us to sift through the evidence and talk to each other about what we see.