My Two Big Questions for This Summer

Because of the length of this post, I almost split it into two separate ones, but I ended up putting them both together. For those of you who make it all the way to the end, I’d love to know any ideas you have on either topic.

One of the many things I love most about writing-reading workshop is that I’ll never perfect it. I will never get to the point where I have notes, lectures, and assignments for the year mapped out to where I can just pull out what I did last year on the same date and implement it. There will always be more to learn, more to try, and a new set of students I have to get to know because ultimately, their interests and needs have to drive much of what happens in my classroom. This means that every year I have successes and failures, and I learn more about how to help seventh graders develop as writers and readers. It also means that I often leave each school year with a question or two that I want to try and find answers to over the summer. Last year, it involved figuring out the best way to make my classroom “gradeless” while still working within the grading systems in place at my school. This summer I leave with two big questions, one involving the assessment plan I implemented this year, the other involving writing.

 

Question #1

I’ll start with my assessment question. I have settled on the process of how we’ll decide the grade. I won’t be going back to grading individual assignments, and we’ll continue to decide the final grade in an assessment conferences at the end of the quarter. My question, though, is this: What should students’ grades at the end of the quarter be based on? Completion of the requirements, mastery of standards, or individual goals? This year, the expectations were the same for everyone first quarter, since students didn’t have goals yet, but afterwards, it was based on their progress towards their writing and reading goals (other than this change during fourth quarter). I think all three options have compelling advantages, though.

Individual Goals (our current method):

  • Advantages: This method gives everyone, regardless of ability level, something attainable but challenging to work towards. Students who are behind their peers get to focus on meeting goals that will help them make progress and catch up to where they should be; students who are advanced are still challenged to continue making progress.
  • Disadvantages: It’s more challenging to keep track of everything because all students have different goals. It also means that someone might do better work than another student but receive a lower grade because of their goals. Maybe this is okay; it’s just a lot different than normal.

Mastery of Standards:

  • Advantages: With us heading towards a standards-based report card eventually, this would start me down that road. Of course, when we move to that report card, there won’t be a letter grade attached. This also makes the criteria consistent, simpler, and clearer
  • Disadvantages: Students who are advanced and meet the standards early don’t have as much to work towards. Also, when we move to a standards-based report card eventually, I don’t want parents to equate the descriptors on the report card with a letter grade. If I use this to figure grades now, it will make it easier for parents to make that equivalency.

Completion of Requirements

  • Advantages: It’s simple and takes care of two of my big problems this year. First, we don’t have to spend time in our assessment conference talking about the grade because it will already be decided. Instead, we can really dig into the details of the students’ work, what they’re doing well and what they need to focus most on next quarter. Second, it could help with the problem I discuss here in the seventh paragraph, the fact that the grade becomes the way students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. Basing the grade on whether they completed everything and met the basic requirements might help them focus more on their accomplishments during the quarter.
  • Disadvantages: Students’ grades don’t really align with their level of achievement during the quarter. With the other two methods, even though they both represent two different things, there is still a more direct correlation between students’ work and their grade.

Right now, I expect to use the same basic methods from this year, but I want to make sure this is the best method to use. I need to spend more time reflecting on this and talking to a couple other teachers at my school to see what they think.

 

Question #2

Every year, my students fill out writing and reading surveys at the start of the school year. The last question on each one asks them, “Are you a writer?” and “Are you a reader?” Students also fill out these same surveys at the end of the year. This year, I had fifty-six students, many of whom had especially bad experiences with reading and writing the previous school year. At the start of the year, thirty-three identified themselves as readers and only nineteen as writers. By the end of the year, fifty-one students identified themselves as readers and thirty-two as writers, with another three in the middle.

While I am excited by all the students who changed their answers over the course of the year, I’m always bothered by the students who still answer no, especially this year with the higher number who answered no in writing. I know that a simple yes/no question doesn’t fully capture where each student is as a writer, and there were many positives among the students who still answered no. Still, though, I want to help turn this around, to bring the numbers up to the same levels as reading.

For students who still don’t see themselves as writers, the most common reason they gave was that they don’t enjoy it. And this is understandable. Even though I find a deep satisfaction from writing, I don’t always enjoy it either. And this is true of many writers. It’s hard and takes a lot of work to try to write well. Most of my students have had little experience with writing before seventh grade, and as is clear from the low number who saw themselves as writers at the start of the year, many of their experiences weren’t positive ones. For them, writing every day, revising over multiple drafts, all of this can be a bit much. Thus, my writing question: How can I help students find more enjoyment in their writing?

For many students, the emphasis we place on choosing topics that matter and finding real purposes for their writing is enough. Their writing is meaningful to them, they see what writing can do, and they begin to see themselves as writers as a result. However, even many of the students who did not see themselves as writers were able to point to pieces they wrote this year that meant a lot to them. Finding meaning in what they wrote, then, wasn’t enough because they didn’t enjoy the process of writing those pieces.

Since taking pieces all the way through the process seems to be the biggest reason students don’t enjoy writing, one of my first thoughts is to incorporate more writing that won’t go through the whole process, more writing that students can just have fun with. This might mean more quickwrites, using ideas from sources like Colby Sharp’s The Creativity Project, or having students start blogging next year. I don’t want to lower the number of finished pieces students create, and students might still not always enjoy the process. This is okay. But I hope that incorporating more experiences that they do enjoy can help balance things out a bit. I want to continue brainstorming options and see how they might fit into our workshop.

Another benefit of these ideas is that they provide more variety so that while students are in the midst of longer writing projects, they aren’t just working on the same piece every day. This idea of variety has been on my mind a lot throughout the year and leads to my second line of thinking. Some of our early genre studies take too long, which reduces the variety of genres we study, especially early in the year. I want to find ways to shorten some of these, so that we’re not spending so long on any one genre. This will allow us to study more genres and also to get to some of the optional genres earlier in the year than we do now. I think that experiencing a more diverse selection of genres will also help students find ones that they like to write best.

So, this is what I’m going to be thinking about a lot this summer. I’ll be doing a lot of professional reading on other topics too, but these are the two questions I definitely hope to have found some answers to before next school year starts. If you have any ideas on either topic, I’d love to read them and take them into consideration as I plan.

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