We are nearing the end of our persuasive writing unit. My students have been working for many weeks to learn about what good persuasive writing looks like and sounds like and even feels like. They have read examples of persuasive writing that are better than good. They have tried out new strategies, they have applied new skills when they have needed them and they have reached a pretty good understanding of what a persuasive piece of writing should include in order to make it better than good.
We have a few more weeks to finish up the pieces that we are currently working on and then it will be time for them to chose the piece of persuasive writing that they believe represents the best of what they have done and the best of themselves as persuasive writers. Now, this is hardly the only time that my students have been assessed. I assess them everyday, they assess each other every day and, most importantly, they assess themselves every day. I offer feedback in one-on-one conferences, in small group meetings, in whole class work time. Students offer each other feedback as they have side-by-side conversations and small group conversations. Students assess their own work every time they use one of our persuasive revision checklists and choose at least two ways to make their writing better.
So there is a lot of assessment and a lot of feedback going on.
But, towards the end of any of our writing units, I want to give the kids a chance to choose the piece of writing that they believe shows the very best of what they have to offer and I want them to use what they know in order to complete a formal assessment of that piece of writing.
The problem is always how to do this in a way that values who they are as individual writers and values what we have learned to do as writers in our classroom. I have found that most of the assessment tools out there for teachers to use don’t often reflect the unique learning that goes on our classroom (or any other classroom other than the one that the assessment was created for). And in the past, when I have created my own writing assessment tools, I have felt as if my students felt completely detached from them. I would spend so much time crafting a checklist or a rubric and then I would hand them out all excited and I noticed that my students’ eyes would glaze over as I read through each bullet point on the paper in front of them. And then when it came time for the students to use them to self-assess, they simply went down the list and checked every single item or circled the highest number on the rubric. They were meaningless.
So for the past few years, I have tried to get my students more involved in the assessment tool creation process. At the start of the year, our assessments look pretty simple. For our narrative writing unit at the start of this year, our assessment was a simple yes or no checklist, but the students created the checklist so that it reflected what THEY thought was important to have in a piece of narrative writing. Here is what we came up with.
Before beginning our work on creating an assessment tool for our persuasive writing, I decided to begin with a discussion on the way that persuasive writing is often assessed in our district. For years we have used the rubric that was created for the writing portion of our old state standardized assessment, the ISAT. There has not been a writing portion of the ISAT for several years now and, of course, this year there is no longer even an ISAT because we will be taking PARCC instead (this is obviously a discussion for another post, I do not want to waste the energy on that now). Anyway, I decided to begin by having the kids look at the rubric that is often used in our district and ask them what they thought about it.
As always, my students’ feedback was incredible. My morning class began with a collective groan. They then got a bit more specific about what they were groaning about and said that they often felt sad when they had put a lot of effort into a piece of writing and then discovered that it was only worth a 2 in the eyes of their teacher. Some said that it was overwhelming to them and that it made them feel like they had to do so many things in order to get a good score. Some kids did acknowledge that it was helpful for them to know exactly what they had to do in order to do well on a piece of writing. Other students said that while it was helpful for them to know what they had to do, it also felt limiting. In my afternoon class, several students spoke about how it made them afraid to try something creative because they didn’t think that was what the rubric was looking for. Others said that they felt like there were many things missing, like a category for creativity, connection with the audience, emotions, relevance of chosen topic, etc. And to me, the most eye opening comments were the ones that expressed that while the rubric that we use helped them to know how to get a good score on a piece of writing, it didn’t really help them to know how to create a good PIECE OF WRITING that would be read outside of the walls of our school. It was amazing how much they had to say.
At the end of both discussions, we decided that while this assessment tool was helpful in some ways, it really was more detrimental to our writing because it was missing some important characteristics and it made us feel limited in what we could try with our own writing.
So we decided to create our own assessment tool.
The first step in our creation process was for the kids to work together in small groups to create a list of all of the qualities of better than good persuasive writing that they could think of. Here is one of the final lists that they came up with. In order to come up with this list, I asked them to think about all of the mentor texts that we have read, all of our writing strategies that we have learned, all of the work they had done and all of the work they had seen their classmates do. I asked them to think about what common elements existed in all of those better than good pieces of persuasive writing. They added them to a collaborative GoogleDoc and I did some cleaning up at the end to merge some similar ideas and remove any repeated ideas.
The next step that we took was to get back in our small groups and to begin organizing these listed qualities into categories. The kids were free to have as many categories as they wanted and to create the kinds of labels for each category that made sense to them. Here is one group’s work that is still in the middle of the process. And here is one group that has finished with the sorting process. It was so exciting to hear the kids having discussions about the kinds of categories that they wanted to see assessed in their own writing.
It was powerful for them to talk about the things that they believe needed to be in a piece of better than good persuasive writing. And what I found especially helpful was hearing that even though some of my students were not yet able to do all of the things that I would expect a fifth grade writer to be able to do, they still knew what things SHOULD be in a piece of persuasive writing in order for it to be better than good. It helped me to understand that while they might not be at the target yet, they know where they need to be heading.
This is a far as we have gotten in the process so far, but I have been so excited about it that I just had to put some thoughts down. This week, I am planning to print out all of the organized qualities and ask the students to create a draft of a possible assessment tool. We will talk about how some groups might opt for a yes/no checklist, other groups might opt for a checklist with point values, other groups might opt for a rubric or other groups might simply opt for some form of written assessment. I want the groups to think for themselves how they think we can best assess a piece of persuasive writing. After the groups share their drafts, as a class, we will choose one assessment tool, or create a combination of several of the shared ideas, to use on our chosen pieces of persuasive writing. The final assessment tool will be completed by the students on a piece of their writing that they believe best shows what they know as a persuasive writer. As they complete these assessments, they will need to highlight and annotate where they find evidence for each descriptor in their own writing.
One of the things that is most exciting to me is that all of this work (in creating the assessment tool) will be taking place as my students are working on their final pieces of persuasive writing. So they are going to be able to use these tools in order to make their current pieces of writing better, even if those aren’t the pieces of writing that they choose to assess formally.
It’s been great to hear the energy in the room as this work is being done and I am so excited to see what our final product will look like. I will make sure to share a copy here as well so that you all can see what we end up with. No matter what it is, no matter what it looks like, no matter how much I wish that it was a little bit different, what I will know is that it is a true reflection of the learning that my students have done and a true reflection of what they believe is most important in a piece of persuasive writing. And that matters so very much.