In the last days of winter break, I immersed myself in my students’ fiction writing. These were pieces of writing that my students had been working on for two months. These were pieces of writing that carried within them the very best that my students had to offer as writers. These were pieces of writing that written and rewritten and carried the weight of my students’ growth as writers.
And these were pieces of writing that were in danger of being reduced to the markings of my red pen (or whatever color pen we have switched to in order to try to solve the problem of the anxiety that the red pen evokes.) Because in the past, that was the final step of the writing process. Whatever work had been done, was not quite good enough, until it was turned in and “fixed” by the red pen. And I would like to stop to argue that the color of the pen is not at all what matters. Give it time and our students will learn to fear green pens, purple pens, whatever color pens you are writing in. They will even come to fear comments left on Google Docs or audio comments left on devices. Unless we change the message and the timing of those marks or messages or comments.
As I sat with these stacks of papers. I felt the familiar dread that I believe we all feel when we are about to dive, head first, into a large stack of student writing. And I don’t think it is just the many pages of not-so-perfect kid writing that causes these feelings of dread. I think that it is our-sometimes unbearable belief that we must “fix” this pile of writing. And when it is that need to fix that motivates us, I believe this is when we can get into trouble.
Now, please don’t misunderstand, this does NOT mean that I do not think we should help students grow as writers. It just means that I do not believe that our assessment of student writing is the time for us to focus on helping students grow as writers. I know that sounds wrong. I get it. But I have felt something shift, as I have shifted my purpose in assessment. I now enter into the assessment phase of the writing process with my students with a focus on celebration. Assessment as celebration. Now, as I dive into that stack of student writing at the end of a writing unit, I have one goal in mind, celebrate, along with my students, what they have learned to do as writers.
This, for me, has changed everything.
You see, my students and I have countless opportunities to help us grow as writers THROUGHOUT the writing units we are engaged in. Every mini-lesson, every mentor text, every teacher-student conference, every meeting with their writing groups, these are all opportunities to grow as writers. These are all chances to find ways to not only make a piece of writing better, but chances to make themselves better writers as well. During the writing process, during planning, during drafting, during revision, these are the times for feedback that focuses on the goal of growing the students as writers. This feedback can come in the form of red pen or green pen or blue pen or audio comments or comments left on GoogleDocs. These comments will grow them as writers. These comments matter most as the students are writing. While they are IN the work.
But assessment. That, for me and for my students, is a time to look BACK on the work. And when we look at assessment as celebration, I believe that it becomes more meaningful for all of us. As a teacher, it helps me to see what worked and what didn’t. For the students, it helps them to notice and name all the ways that they grown and it solidifies their identities as writers.
So how do I do this? It is actually really easy and way less time-consuming than what I used to force myself to do.
The first people to assess my students’ writing are my students themselves. I have explained this in previous posts, but here is how it works again. Each student pulls out their best draft of all the pieces of writing they completed during that unit. Together, we build a list of writing strategies that we have learned throughout the unit. I put these together in a chart and leave space for additional writing strategies that the students have learned on their own through their mentor text analysis or from the lessons taught to them by their peers. For each of these strategies, the students assign a color. They then go into their best drafts and look for evidence that they have used each strategy. They underline or highlight that writing in the color assigned to the strategy being used. This can be done on GoogleDocs or on a physical copy of the writing. The students choose what works best for them. Here are some pictures of what that looks like:
I have the students turn their color-coded copy and a clean copy for me to assess.
And that is where I step in. As I sit and work through each of the students’ pieces of writing, I feel no need to fix. I don’t even feel a need for the feedback that I provide to give them specific things to work on. I have done that already. This feedback is purely celebration. Let me mine these pieces of writing for evidence of what you have learned to do as a writer. Let us celebrate that together.
And that is exactly what I do.
With my students’ fiction writing, I spent two days reading through their writing and underlining evidence of the writing strategies they had learned to use. I underline to point those out and then write down the strategy being used in the margins. And this work. It is so much more meaningful. And what I hand back to the students is a celebration. The markings on their papers are the evidence of how hard they have worked, what they have learned to do, and NOT evidence of everywhere that they did not quite do enough. Here is what that looks like:
I have already changed the form a bit. Since most students ended up only turning in one long piece of writing, instead of multiple shorter pieces, like they did with their memoir writing, I took off the column to write which piece of writing I found the strategy used in. If you are interested, HERE is the newer version of the form I used.
And the information I am left with. It tells me so much. It tells me how effective my teaching was. Which strategies did my students understand well enough to use on their own? Which strategies that I taught were actually helpful to my students as writers? Which students are able to transfer our mini-lessons and conferences into their own writing? Which students do I need to support in a different way as we move forward as writers? All of this becomes the focus on my assessment.
And the kids. Every single one of them saw evidence of what they had learned to do as a writer. Every single one of them saw evidence that, as their teacher, what I wanted to focus on was what they had done well. What they had learned to do. How they had grown as writers. And that. That is a true celebration.