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. 

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.

 

Introducing Myself and My Class to Parents

When I first started teaching, my basic strategy for communicating with parents was to do it as little as possible. I hoped that if I didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother me, and I could just teach my students. Obviously, this was not a great strategy.

The purpose of this post is merely to share what I send to parents at the start of the year. When I began writing these letters, I found the writing of others to be a huge help: Nancie Atwell’s letter about reading workshop, which she shares in her book The Reading Zone, was the first one that helped me. More recently, a letter by Pernille Ripp about her classroom library (if you go to the link, it’s towards the end of the blog post) and another by Joy Kirr about assessment helped me as I reread and revised my own. Since the writing of others helped me so much, I wanted to share mine in case they might be helpful to anyone else. 

I send home three letters at the start of the year. The first is about reading. About a week later I send out one about our writing workshop. Finally, last year once I stopped grading individual assignments and made significant changes to how we do assessment, I began sending home a letter about that too.

I’m sure that some parents don’t read all three letters; maybe some don’t read any of them. But for those who do, they provide a great overview of the different aspects of my class and also give me a chance to promote the benefits of my different methods and sell my vision for what our workshop will be like. This year, I’ll also be compiling every letter and other communications into a blog so that parents don’t have to keep track of lots of emails. This way, if they ever want to look back at something I sent home earlier, they can find it at our blog.

Last summer, after seeing the survey that Pernille sends to parents, I decided to create one of my own. I had always invited parents to send me information about their children, but with such an open-ended invitation many didn’t reply, and of the ones who did, only a small handful provided any meaningful information. This survey did two things, though. Way more parents actually took the time to respond (about 60%), and their responses were so much more helpful than most of the old ones. I make the survey into a Google Form but also attach a list of the questions in case anyone prefers to respond a different way. Here is the list of questions I’m using this year. 

Finally, I have one new item that I will send home sometime in the first couple weeks. One of the biggest roadblocks to helping students worry less about their grades and more about learning is the pressure they receive from home to achieve certain grades. So this summer I created a guide for parents: how to talk to their kids about school without talking about grades. I do hope the questions I listed out prove helpful for some parents, but even if they don’t ever use the questions I’ve listed, I hope the act of sending this document can be one more strong reminder to not worry so much about grades and to focus more on what matters. Some of the questions in the guide are specific to things we do in my class while others could apply to almost any writing-reading workshop. If anything in any of the documents here can help you, please don’t hesitate to use them.

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.

Trying to Assess a Writer’s Process

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.

Reflections on a Year (Mostly) without Grades

With the school year over, I think it’s so important to take some time to reflect. So this will be the first of several posts designed to help me think back on the year: what I noticed, what I learned, and what I want to think about or change next year. This first post is going to focus specifically on the new assessment plan I implemented this year.

First a brief recap of the changes I made. First, I stopped grading individual assignments, focusing instead of providing feedback along the way. Then, at the end of each quarter, I met with students to determine their grades for reading and writing. First quarter, everyone had the same criteria. For the last three quarters, their grades were based on their progress towards the reading and writing goals we had set together at the start of the quarter. The exception was that during 4th quarter, I tried something a bit different in writing, which I write about here.

I kept parents informed by using the Notes section in our school’s online gradebook to post shortened versions of the feedback students were getting and to post weekly updates for writing, summarizing something we talked about that week in a writing conference or what the student was working on that week. At the end of each quarter, then, I typed up a Teacher Evaluation Form, where I wrote out notes on the students accomplishments, progress, and other notes from their work that quarter.

Overall, I was happy with how the system worked. Only talking about grades for one week a quarter instead of them constantly consuming so much time and attention was a vast improvement. I also think the system for communicating information to parents, if they took the time to read it, provided them with much more information about their child’s progress than they were getting before. Most students, at least by the end of the year, liked having the opportunity to be involved in the grading process, and some even mentioned that they liked how they were forced to justify their grade with evidence from their work that quarter, that it gave them a much better idea of how they were doing.

For the most part, the assessment conferences went well. Most students, as I expected them to be, were pretty accurate in terms of how they graded themselves. There were a few who tried all year to make the evidence say what they wanted it to say (i.e. to make it say they should get an A even when it didn’t show that), and another student or two who consistently graded themselves much lower than the evidence said they deserved. But overall, at least 90-95% of the time, my assessment was pretty close to that of the students.

The thing I didn’t like the most is, unfortunately, the only thing I can’t change about this system: the fact that we still had to attach a grade at the end. As we went through this process this year, I was repeatedly made aware of how much better this whole process would be if we didn’t have to decide on a letter grade. Because I don’t want this process to consume too much of our workshop time, I’m limited in terms of how much time I have to sit down with each student. That means that every minute we spend talking about a grade is one less minute we get to actually assess how they’re doing. I would love to be able to sit down with each student, talk about how they’re doing in the different areas we assess, examine the progress they’ve made towards their reading and writing goals, discuss what they most need to work on next quarter, and create new goals for them to works towards next. And then just stop there. Unfortunately, we don’t get to dig into all of those areas in as much detail as I’d like because we have to spend some of that time deciding on what the students’ grade will be. Now, as the year went on, I did start finding ways to work around this. I went through the students planning sheet and evidence ahead of time, and if it was obvious that the student had earned an A, we didn’t bother talking about the grade. I want to do that more from the start next year.

The other problem with this system is that no matter how much I try to deemphasize this grade, this is still the way that too many students decide if they’ve had a good quarter or not. No matter how much self-assessment they do, these grades becomes their validation. If a student gets an A, then he can feel good about the quarter he had. If a student gets a B, then she can feel okay about it. If someone, GASP, gets a C, then that student feels like he had a bad quarter. I hate this, that a stupid letter has the power to decide how students feel about their quarter. And it’s not just students who feel like they did poorly. I hate that students who did great don’t feel good about all the amazing things they accomplished, only that they got A’s.

This year at the end of the year, I asked students what they achieved as readers and writers that they were most proud of, and I created certificates that I handed out on the last day (an idea based on something Pernille Ripp does in her class). I was also so impressed with the thoughtfulness so many students put into the final reflections they wrote after we had finished all of our assessment conferences. I asked students to answer this question: Think about yourself when school started in August compared to yourself now. How have you grown or changed as a writer and reader since then? What helped you? What changed you? What made you the writer and reader you are today?

I have to find as many ways as possible to help students not just be aware of what they’ve achieved, but somehow to help this become what they focus on. I also have to be more intentional about regularly encouraging parents to not focus on the grade so much. I’ve already started thinking about ways to do that next year, and I’m sure that will become a blog post later this summer.

Eventually, we will be implementing a standards-based report card in the junior high and eliminating letter grades (this type of report card is making its way up our school’s elementary now and will get to us at some point). Until that happens, I want to continue finding more ways to help students and parents put their focus on the right things.

Thoughts on Using Grades to Keep Kids Motivated at the End of the Year

This week, I’ve been thinking back to previous years when a teacher from a nearby district would complain about how early their grades had to be in at the end of the year. Final grades were due before the year was over, and kids new this. I used to think this would be bad too. I thought I needed to keep grading right up to the end of the year to motivate students. Otherwise, what would make them stay focused and keep trying? I’ve changed my mind about this, though. Now, this is just another problem, one of many, with grades being our main source of motivation for students.

This year, as I’ve written about quite often, I’m no longer grading individual assignments. Students’ quarter grades, which are solely based on their progress towards their reading and writing goals, are decided during a conference between the student and me. As I thought about the end of the year, I didn’t want to end the year talking to students about grades. As a result, we’re having these conferences at the start of next week, meaning there will be over a week left after students’ final grades have been determined. Am I worried that the week will become chaotic because grades are decided? Not a bit.

This past week, we had our final roundtable discussion, with students discussing the things that make books memorable and talking about the books they had read this year that would stay with them the most. At the end of the discussions, I asked students to reflect on the differences they saw between our most recent discussions and the ones we had at the start of the year. A couple of them shared in each class. My favorite response came from a boy in my last block. He said that at the beginning of the year, they mostly talked because they were supposed to and wanted to get credit for contributing. Now, they talked because they wanted to and had ideas to share. They weren’t worrying about grades anymore.

My only regret about our assessment conferences is that we didn’t have them sooner, which would have given us more than a week free of grades. The only reason we’re choosing a grade is that we have to put one on the report card. However, there’s no rule about when grades can be finalized. Next year, I want to have our final assessment conferences earlier to give students a couple weeks to come to class, to read, write, and talk while being truly free of grades. I wish that this year we would have decided on grades already and then had this final roundtable discussion afterwards.

While the assessment conferences have been a major upgrade from how grades used to be determined in my class, I’m looking forward to finishing them and being able to enjoy being with my students for the last week or so that we’ll have left once these conferences are finished. And next year, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with a couple weeks completely free of grades. I think it’ll make for a great end to the year.

Goal Setting in Our Writing-Reading Workshop

Goal-setting has been a part of my class for many years, long before my decision to stop grading individual assignments and begin meeting with students to decide their grades at the end of each quarter. In the past, they were a part of the grade students would receive, but with all the other grades that were being entered throughout the quarter, they were only a small part. This year, though, goals now play a much larger role in our classroom. As a result, I spent a lot of time examining the categories in which students would need to set goals, and I’ve also spent more time thinking about how I can help students make progress towards these goals, both by giving them reminders and the support they will need in order to reach them.

First, though, a bit about our goal-setting process. At the end of the quarter, students set goals in specific categories for the upcoming quarter, I look over them and suggest revisions as needed, and then I add certain goals that I think the student needs to work on, mostly in the same categories but sometimes in other areas too, especially in writing where I might add a process-related goal for some students. Then we’ll meet for a short conference at the start of the next quarter to discuss them. The categories are always open for revision, but here are our current ones:

Reading:

  • productivity and pace (number of books finished, number of pages read a night)
  • book selections
  • expanding their tastes as readers (experiments with authors and genres)
  • letter-essays, roundtable paragraphs, and contributions to roundtable discussions
  • booktalks or making recommendations to other readers

Writing:

  • their work as a poet (free-verse poetry is our first genre study and something students often write the rest of the year in between finishing a piece and starting a new genre study)
  • topic choices
  • purpose and sharing their writing with others
  • editing or mastery of specific conventions on their individual editing checklists

To help students track their progress and make plans, we take time every two weeks to fill out a reflection form where students record anything they’ve done over the previous two weeks that relate to their goals and make plans for the next couple weeks. Over the first half of the year, I’ve realized that I need to do a better job of teaching students how to reflect and how to fill this out. Otherwise, many seventh graders will just go through and put yes or no for everything.

During the second half of the quarter, I will begin to check in with students to see what goals they need to focus on and what help they need from me. As needed, I will begin to put together small stacks of books for students who want/need to try a new genre or encourage them to talk to specific students in class who know those genres well.

Another simple thing I’ve started doing that has helped a ton is to put goals at the top of related documents. In reading workshop, there are two main types of writing students do about their books: a letter-essay once a month and a paragraph(s) in preparation for roundtable discussions during the other weeks. Each quarter, they have a document where all their letter-essays and others’ responses are written, and they have a separate document for their roundtable prep. Every student has at least one goal related to letter-essays or roundtables (many have goals related to both), and these goals are pasted into a box at the top of these documents. That way, every time they open this document they are reminded of their goal.

This has also been a big help to me too. Each time they do these, students get written feedback. On their letter-essays I give them feedback, and they immediately make any necessary revisions. On roundtables, since the paragraphs follow the same basic format each week, they get feedback to apply the next time around. In both cases, having goals printed there makes sure that some of my feedback is related to those goals. Plus, when I type up my notes, which I use to put comments in our online gradebook for parents to see, I can also be sure to include notes related to their goals.

In addition to these things, I’m always trying to come up with new ways to keep students (and me) aware of their goals. We’ll paste editing-related goals onto their individual editing checklists. Sometimes students will copy reading goals on an index card to use as a bookmark (this works well for some but others lose them almost immediately). I’ll also sometimes paste all their goals into a table that I can print out and carry with me to writing and reading conferences, giving me the goals of the whole class on the front/back of the same document.

I know that it’s just as important for me to stay focused on these goals as it is for students. I can’t create a situation where we meet at the beginning of the quarter to set goals and then I turn them lose for nine weeks before I check back in and see how they do. In the past, there were times when I was guilty of this. Now, however, with students’ goals being the sole topic of our assessment conferences at the end of the quarter, we’re both accountable for these goals. Students are accountable to do the work necessary to meet them; I’m accountable to provide the support they need to be able to do this.