Top 5 Ways to Become a Stronger Writing Teacher: A Book Study of Writing Pathways

This June/2014, I had the privilege to attend the advanced sessions in the  Writing Institute at Teachers College. In my first day, I met experienced teachers who have been attending it for the past 10 years. I was not only puzzled, but also intrigued wondering why they have been attending for so long. Well, by the end of the week, I figured out why. If your school does not offer professional development where you can grow your knowledge about how to teach writing, that’s the place where you can recharge your batteries and be ready for the school year. For the ones in Brazil, where the institute takes place in the middle of the school year, that’s the place that you might be able to find solutions for your tricky writers to be or maybe just ideas that you can still use in your classroom in the second semester. The great thing about the advanced sessions is that  most of the topic sessions change every year.

One of the resources shared last year and more this year is the Writing Pathways that help me to become a more effective writing teacher. For this reason, I would like to share this article. The original can be found in this link: Top 5 Ways to Become a Stronger Writing Teacher

Top 5 Ways to Become a Stronger Writing Teacher: A Book Study of Writing Pathways
March 3, 2014 at 11:11am

Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, K-5 book coverWriting Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, K-5, by Lucy Calkins (Heinemann, 2013) has yielded insightful conversations about writing assessments and tracking student progress across the unit and year, as well as studying trends across the grade and school. This publication has also helped educators think about their own methods as writing teachers and how we can be more effective to promote the success of young writers. Here are five ways that you can study the writing in your school alongside a book study of Writing Pathways. Through a book study about writing assessments you can think about the students in your classroom and reflect upon your teaching practice:

Measure Progress & Honor Process

It is easy to become preoccupied with the piece a student is composing at any given time, focusing on ways to improve the writing and prepare it for publication. However, it’s important to remember the philosophy of workshop teaching: teach the writer, not the writing; honor the process, not just the product. In our workshops we want to teach towards independence; therefore, students need to be taught in such a way that they internalize writing skills not just be told to do them.

What does this mean for our daily practice as writing teachers? In the first three chapters, Writing Pathways describes an assessment system in which teachers give students a clear and consistent prompt to quickly determine each child’s current strengths and needs as a writer, then once again at the end of the unit to measure growth and progress toward end-of-year standards, and beyond. Meanwhile, our teaching can then emphasize the patterns of need writers have and help us supply students with specific and transferable strategies to support individual writers, not individual pieces of writing. Consequently, students are constantly working within their own developmental zone, making approximations as they strive to get stronger as writers.

The On-Demand assessments provide ongoing dipstick measurements of students’ progress toward long-term goals in and across units of study. This way, our final celebrations across the school year can honor new learning and progress toward these long-term goals.

With teachers in your school, collect on demand writing samples of a similar genre, a week or two before you do a unit of study (with that genre). Use the continua in the book to help sort and sift your student work in various piles to see patterns and trends in your classrooms. Collaborate together and talk about the decisions and needs of your students. This way, at your school, you are developing a common ‘lens’ for how to study student work and you are developing a common language around that work.

Be Flexible & Responsive: More Effective in Conferences and Small Groups In Chapter 4 of Writing Pathways, we learn about ways to provide various pathways of instruction to our diverse range of learners. One important tip reminds us to make sure that our conferring and small group work responds to the specific needs children have, and not tightly connected to that day’s minilesson. This pushes us as writing teachers to determine students’ needs and teach responsively, in many cases, inventing strategies on the spot. In this way, our workshop casts a wider net, reaching more writers—those in need of a reminder of prior teaching, facing unforeseen trouble, or those ready for a greater challenge.

Flexibility in our teaching also allows us to provide necessary scaffolds for students. It may be that you choose a different mentor text or adjust your demonstration writing to provide clearer examples for students; more comparable to students’ current level of writing. Likewise, you may also choose to adjust the paper choices students use to provide additional supports such as a larger (or smaller) picture box, or a place to jot key words for writers who are moving toward writing longer down each page. You may also invent ways to incorporate technology in your instruction, using web-based resources, apps, or short video clips. Increasing the flexibility of our teaching harkens back to the age-old proverb, “try, try again.” When our teaching doesn’t stick, it’s important to try again, thinking creatively about alternate entry points to support students’ understanding.

Chapter 11 addresses that common feeling writing teachers can have: What do I say? What do I teach? Using the writing checklist, we can guide the research we do as teachers, looking across the criteria with a child to think, “What are you already doing really well? What are you just starting to do that you can do more?” Not only does this frame the conversation around strengths and goals, but it also helps reinforce the expectations outlined by the checklist so that it serves as an ongoing tool, long after the conference. You might even highlight a particular strand on the checklist, emphasizing this to promote independent practice and accountability.

Developing clear and crystallized goals supports students to grow and learn more. Set goals by studying your student work alongside the checklists and gather small groups of students (especially ‘outliers’) and teach a series of small group strategy lessons. At the end of the unit of study, as you do a summative assessment, reflect on the goals you worked on with your students to look for signs of progress.

Stay Organized & Keep Track

Assessments, done. Conferences, got it. Wait, record-keeping? How can we track students’ progress in manageable ways so that we use data, not just collect it? Across Chapter 9, one word resonates: consolidate. It is easy to become overwhelmed by sheets of paper and stacks of folders, filing them away and not using them in our daily practice. By consolidating data gathered from writing assessments, you’re more likely to use this information in your everyday teaching. For example, you might create a one-page spreadsheet recording students’ names down the left-hand column and numerical scores across each row to quickly reveal patterns and trends, such as low-scoring students in the category of Leads. You may instead choose to put students into boxes, grouped by common needs as determined by the categories of the rubric to plan for strategy lessons and conferences across the unit. Perhaps, you’ll keep a color-coded copy of the writing rubric in a tabbed binder to track progress across individual conferences keeping conferring notes side-by-side with assessment data for each student. Ultimately, the system you develop will be unique to your own preferences and classroom makeup.

In your study group with colleagues, you may explore a couple of different record-keeping systems, compiling individual class data before coming together to share how students performed on pre-assessments. Look across each class to study patterns. You may help one another form flexible strategy groups as you enter an upcoming unit. Then, zoom-out to study trends across the grade (or even across multiple grades) to set larger goals for writing instruction. What do you notice about students’ organization? Volume? Development? Use of craft? Spelling strategies? Punctuation? Establish goals and reflect on unit plans to incorporate a heightened focus on specific areas of need.

Give Students Clear Expectations: Using Writing Samples

Writing Pathways includes leveled student samples as well as annotated writing developed using the progressions for opinion, information, and narrative writing. These both serve as incredible tools for classroom use. You may share student samples before launching a unit of study as a way to immerse your class in the upcoming genre. You might say, “This is a piece by a kid, just like you, who wrote an information book to teach all about a topic she knows a lot about. Soon, you’ll do this same kind of writing, too!” Or, you may use these pieces as a way to collaborate with your class to think about strategies to apply to strengthen the piece. Similarly, you might use exemplar pieces in an inquiry lesson, studying the moves one writer made to tell his story, marking up the piece to invite kids to try these same strategies in their own writing. By doing this kind of work early on, you help clarify the high expectations you have and provide a visual tool to encourage students to challenge themselves across the unit.

With colleagues, create an enlarged exemplar piece, transcribing samples fromPathways or adapting the sample to fit your own needs. For example, you may decide to draft an exemplar that more clearly defines the voice and structure of procedural writing for the Kindergarten How-to unit, since the exemplar is an informational text about bulldogs. Decide what elements of the writing you hope students will notice and apply to their own work. Jot these on post-its much like the annotated exemplars—keeping these post-its to the side until you unroll the exemplar piece in your own classroom. Having a clear vision for the end product will help support the inquiry work you lead with students. Expect to be surprised by the observations kids make! Add these to your list in the moment.

Helping Students Use Checklists to Self-Assess and Set Goals

Across classrooms in districts near and far, teachers are unveiling checklists to help students self-assess and set goals, but they know this takes more work than passing out copies. First, it takes a clear message, “You are the boss of your own writing. You are in charge.”

Like anything, this kind of work takes practice and kids will approximate. You’ll want to incorporate use of the checklist into your minilessons, demonstrating how to be thoughtful and honest as you self-assess. It’ll be important to reveal your own next steps to encourage children to admit their own next steps. Celebrate when students have discovered areas to work on, reminding them that this is how writers get stronger, turning weaknesses into strengths!

You may invent playful ways for kids to use the checklist, creating partnership or table games. For example, have kids pick a strand at random then closely check across their entire piece (or folder) for evidence of that work, picking up pens to get right to work to revise or edit. Maybe students will give each other writing checkups, trading pieces and prescribing something to work on, as described in first grade’s Writing Reviews. Maybe you’ll work with small groups of writers to cut up the strands of their checklists to use as sorting pieces, before pasting next steps on an individual goal card, abbreviating the criteria and attending more to specific needs.

In your study group, consider ideas for unveiling the checklist with young writers. You might choose to adapt the checklist, creating your own visual icons to support independent use. Work together to develop and make a variety of “games” kids can play using the checklist. You might each create separate ones and come back to share successes and challenges to refine this work. Perhaps you’ll take short video clips of partnerships interacting with the checklist. These will prove as a valuable tool to teach other students how to collaborate with partners, use the checklist, and set goals. You might trade video clips with a colleague to use in your own classroom.

Remember this book is a resource for you, filled with exemplars for and from teachers and students, continua for process and qualities of good writing, as well as student checklists. Enjoy the book study and the student progress that’ll surely follow!


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