The Unquiet Librarian: An Epilogue

Photo used with written permission from Zenonas Meskauskas https://www.flickr.com/photos/zenonas/34947565136/sizes/l .

Ten years ago today, I began The Unquiet Librarian blog.   It’s hard to believe a decade has passed, but the years have passed in the blink of an eye.  When I began blogging, I simply did it to have a space to reflect on my practice, period.  So many other great librarians were writing and sharing their work, and I thought how fun it would be for me to do so, too.

Ten years and 800 posts (!)  later, very few of the librarians who were blogging then are still doing so.  The entire landscape of social media has changed (not for the better, I fear), and so has librarianship.  This blog has reflected my professional journey as a librarian for nine years and then back to the classroom this past year; it has been one with many unexpected turns and twists.  In recent years, I’ve felt a little like Odysseus trying to find my way back “home” to a space where I could do what I’ve always aspired to do:  that is to simply do good work that is meaningful and to be respected for it.  The last five years have definitely presented many tests and challenges, and I am proud to say I feel I passed them with as much as grace and dignity as I could even when things were messy and less than ideal.  This is not to say I had moments of questioning or when I stumbled, but overall, I feel I passed the tests that were thrown my way.  I am also thankful for the clarity and understanding that these trials have brought as well as the amazing people I’ve been blessed to befriend in the last four years.

I have always tried to keep learning at the center of my reflective writing and shared openly in hopes that not only would doing so bring me insights and push my thinking, but I also hoped that perhaps my writing help others along the way, too. I am proud that I have blogged this long, and even prouder that I did some of the best work of my entire career after I had won several major professional accolades in the library profession.  I am even prouder that I continued writing and reflecting in the midst of tremendous professional and personal adversity and upheaval.  I am proud I kept my blog my own and did not commercialize it even though there were several opportunities to do so.

A year ago, I made a very deliberate decision to leave the library profession and return to the classroom.   There were many reasons for making this choice, but ultimately, I needed to be in a positive space where I could dwell in teaching and learning and innovate with support and encouragement instead of being marginalized or ostracized for those passions.  More importantly, I missed having my very own community of learners that I could connect with daily in deep and authentic ways.   I realized the library was no longer the space that allowed for these needs, and I returned to my first love where my career began:  the English Language Arts classroom.  I can now say without any hesitation and with absolute certainty that this decision was the best thing I could have done for myself both professionally and personally.  This is not to say there were not times of doubt and questioning in the last twelve months, but I can now see these moments were signs of the growth I was undergoing.  I have also learned throughout my life questioning and doubt give you opportunities to really think about what you believe in (both professionally and personally) and what matters most.  I am forever thankful to Chestatee Academy principal Jennifer Kogod for believing in me and supporting me—she never doubted in my ability to transition back to the classroom successfully.  That confidence and faith were and continue to be invaluable to me as she shares my passion for literacy and learning.  The freedom I’ve been allowed as an educator during the last year has been the catalyst enabling and fueling tremendous growth for me as a teacher and as a person.

I am also indebted to my CA students in grades 6, 7, and 8 of this past year.  You pushed me and challenged me to think about everything I thought I knew about Language Arts and writing instruction, and I became a better person and teacher for it.  I hope that I was able to give as much to you as you gave to me.   You have my love and know I will always be in gratitude for our time together this past year.  I will forever cherish all of the moments when I saw you grow and even more importantly, when you recognized your own growth as a writer and learner.

Being back in the classroom has not only fueled my energy and passion for teaching, learning, and literacy, but it also has helped me emerge from the long dark tunnel of grief that has imbued every aspect of my life since my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer in June 2013 and all that followed for the next ten months and then aftermath of her passing.   This is not to say I still do not have moments of immense sadness because I do, but teaching and learning with my students and fellow teachers has helped me re-calibrate my inner compass and to feel happiness again.  Teaching in the classroom again has given me a sense of purpose and meaning, and frankly, it has saved me—I do not say that lightly.  After seeing so much ugliness in life between 2013 and 2015, I was losing myself.    Being in the classroom again, even with all the challenges teachers face, has renewed my sense of optimism and faith in the good of humanity.  I know my mother would be so happy to see me teaching with joy and feeling a sense of hope and excitement about life.   In addition, the steadfast friendships that have remained in spite of so much adversity, the encouragement from colleagues near and far, and your prayers have helped me continue to draw upon the inner fortitude instilled in me by mother and beloved grandmothers to arrive at this place.

Though the space where I do this work is different, my commitment to inquiry, literacy learning, and doing quality, authentic work remains as steadfast as ever, if not more so.   However, it no longer makes sense to reflect and write here on this blog; therefore, this is my last post at The Unquiet Librarian.  However, I will leave the site up as an archive of my work and journey for you as well as for me.   This decision was not an easy one, and I am thankful to all who supported me as I wrestled with this decision, including Brian Mathews, Joe Fox, Jennifer Lund, and Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz.  It would have been easy to have continued blogging in this space, but those who know me well know I am not apt to take the path of least resistance (for better or for worse).  This space simply no longer fits, but I am thankful for the time that it did.

I am thankful to all of you who have supported my writing, thinking, and work for the last ten years in this space. Though there are many who have served as a point of light, I would be remiss if I did not thank Brian Mathews (formerly of The Ubiquitous Librarian).  Brian not only inspired me with his blogging from the beginning of my career until he ended his blog in 2015, but he was also the person whose quality of reflective thinking I aspired to do in my own blog.  In addition, he has been a sounding board and a source of sage professional advice at key points in my life in recent years.   I am also indebted to the teachers, students, librarians, and fellow educators whose stories have filled this blog and the work embedded in it.

The beauty of letting go of something is that you are free to grasp new opportunities and to embark on new paths.  I sincerely hope you will join me at my new blog, Living in the Layers.  I will continue to reflect on all things learning and literacy as well as read, write, and revise my practice as a Language Arts and Literacy educator wherever the next decade takes me. It seems fitting to begin my new blog, inspired by Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers”, today on Independence Day as I embark on this new phase of my work as a literacy educator.   As the header image for my new blog (pictured below) implies, sometimes we must be brave and courageous to venture into places we might not go in order to make those turns and moves that will “clear our vision” of what once was and to begin to see what can be.

War Eagle Writers in the Research Sandbox, Part 2: Crafting Learner Ready Instruction, Scaffolding Writing, and What We Learned Together

In my previous post; I outlined the work we did to:

  • brainstorm topics
  • narrow our topics
  • conduct pre-search
  • use that pre-search to finalize a topic choice
  • generate questions about our topic using the question lenses chart
  • finalize our research questions and complete an investigation plan/research contract

In this post, I’ll explain how we targeted these skills with our research/inquiry mini-project:

  • Adding sources to your bibliography in EasyBib.
  • Taking notes with the notecards in your EasyBib notebook on your two research questions in EasyBib.
  • Writing a strong introduction to your essay (the three sentence method).
  • Writing body paragraphs with the Schaffer two chunk method that helps you use your research/evidence to answer your research question with concrete details and commentary.
  • Showing where your information for your concrete details came from using parenthetical references in the body of your paper and using EasyBib to correctly generate your parenthetical references.
  • Using paraphrased and directly quoted information correctly as concrete details.
  • Using appropriate transition words in your paragraphs.
  • Writing a strong conclusion using our template provided to you.

Once students had their top two topic choices finalized, these questions served as our lens for moving into more formal and strategic research with our research questions serving as our compass.

Using EasyBib to Add Resources To Answer Our Research Questions and Take Meaningful Digital Notes

With the help of our school’s subscription to EasyBib, students could easily add sources to a working bibliography and begin taking digital notes with the digital notebook tool.  Most of my students had not used our subscription, so my previous experience as a librarian and extensive use of EasyBib helped me immerse the students into the platform and provide them resources and instruction on how to use EasyBib.

Once they got started, most were pleasantly surprised by how simple it is to use EasyBib and became enthusiastic users.  EasyBib also reduced my paper flow since students shared their projects with me electronically, and I could easily monitor and assess their progress with their bibliographies and digital notes.  We devoted about a week of class time to researching and taking notes; this in-class work time was important because students could ask for help with their research or EasyBib in person as needed.  I also gave students video tutorials so that if they needed assistance after hours or wanted to self-help themselves with EasyBib, then they could access the help videos.

Our target goal was to find at least four viable sources and to complete 10 digital notes.  Because students could share their projects with me electronically , I could easily and quickly check their work and provide feedback with the comments tools available for both the bibliography and the digital notebook.

Differentiating for Learners with Checklists and Instruction on Demand

Once I had checked a student’s work, given him/her feedback, and rechecked any research work that needed revising, he or she then received a learning pathways checklist to help him or her move through our next series of learning tasks.  I devised this checklist to help students have a path to instruction on demand since I widely varying ability levels in each class and wanted to have a way for students to work through the learning tasks at a personalized pace.

The first task for students was to do a self-assessment of his/her work in EasyBib using the reflection tool below:

Students were then ready to move through the mini-lessons and resources to help them begin writing their draft. Here is our writing plan for both grades 7 and 8:

Though I am not a fan of “essay formulas”, I have learned through experience this past year that most of my writers needed an “anchor” to help them compose their academic writing.  Our writing plan is a blend of structures from a fellow teacher and the Jane Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing method.  I felt the Schaffer “two chunk” paragraph writing structure would give my students a way of organizing their research into their essay and help them develop their ideas with evidence and their own analysis of the information.   This writing plan was introduced in one of three “instruction on demand” videos I created with my personal Screecastomatic account and inserted into our Canvas learning platform for both my 7th and 8th grade writing courses.  I no longer have access to my Canvas courses and do not have a saved screenshot of how the resources were embedded in that platform, but the resources are also crossposted to my LibGuides project page here:

Most students accessed the videos through Canvas simply because that was our space where they lived as learners, but I wanted to have a backup available through LibGuides.  In addition to the instructional videos on demand, I did provide students hard copies of each instructional handout—I learned quickly last fall that most of my students needed a hard copy of any handout because that fits their current learning style.

Once students reviewed our writing plan handout (posted earlier in this post) and watched Video 1, he/she was ready to craft the introduction.  I do not have permission to publish the introduction template, but it mirrored a structure we had used for earlier essays, so students were familiar with crafting the following elements for the introduction:

  • an effective hook (we had three primary strategies for composing the hook)
  • an additional sentence or sentences to further explain the information presented in the hook
  • our thesis statement

Once students drafted the introduction, I checked the work in class and then helped students set up their essay document in Google Docs.  Once students had typed the polished introduction, he/she was ready to the next step:  writing the body paragraphs.  Students received this handout, and I reviewed it with them before turning them loose to watch the custom tutorial video that explained the Schaffer Two Chunk paragraph writing method.  This example is one I wrote as I wanted to model for students the writing I was asking them to do.

Once students had finished watching Video 2, they received the third and final help handout to prep them for the third video from EasyBib.

As you can see, there is a good deal of frontloading between writing the introduction and writing the two body paragraphs, but I wanted the students to have a solid foundation before they attempted to compose the body paragraphs.  Once students finished the third video, I provided each one a copy of the composing checklist to support the students as they began drafting.

Once students were cleared to begin drafting, students moved forward by:

  • Composing the first body paragraph using the Schaffer Two Chunk method.  Students did all drafting directly in Google Docs and once the paragraph draft was completed, the draft could be shared with me for virtual feedback.  Many students also took the approach of composing the topic sentence and first “chunk” and then sharing the work with me to make sure they were on the right track before writing the second chunk of the first body paragraph.  These approaches made it possible to engage in meaningful formative assessment with students and to identify any areas that needed help or reteaching either with 1:1 instruction, additional resources shared through the Google Doc, and/or redirecting the students back to Videos 2 and 3 and the supporting help/model writing documents.
  • Once the first body paragraph was cleared, students could then compose the second body paragraph.  We repeated the same process and approaches for body paragraph 1.
  • Last but not least, students crafted their conclusions.  I do not have permission to publish the text structure template for the conclusion, but it was one we had used earlier in the year along with our transition words to help us compose a strong concluding paragraph.

Once students had finished revising and editing their work with my assistance and that of peers if they desired, we used Kidblog to publish our papers.  I love Kidblog because students can publish their work easily and Kidblog has Google Drive integration making it easy to publish writing created in Google Docs.   If you are working with younger students where privacy is a concern, Kidblog is the perfect solution to address that need.  One piece of advice to consider that I’ve learned in the last few days:  when I registered for Kidblog, I used my district email and signed up with the “register with Google” option that tied my Kidblog account directly to my work Google account.  Unfortunately, my access to my work email and portal were cut off earlier this week because I’m leaving the school district, but I didn’t anticipate it would be shut off before my current contract expired.  If you need access to student work after the fact, you may want to register with a personal email account instead of your work account.

Reflections:  Successes and Stumbling Blocks (Glows and Grows)

Successes/Glows/Celebrations

  • Students gained tremendous confidence and experience in selecting sources, evaluating information, and taking meaningful notes in EasyBib.
  • Students were able to work at their own pace and access instruction on demand.
  • Checklists helped students stay on track and practice new writing skills.
  • Google Docs and our “learning pathway” approach helped amplify the possibilities for real-time formative assessment and feedback at the learner point of need.
  • Students investigated meaningful questions that could not be easily answered with simple facts; students generated deeper level research questions to go beyond regurgitating facts.  The Schaffer Two Chunk writing method also pushed students to incorporate their own analysis or interpretation of the information they used as their concrete details.
  • The model text I crafted and supporting instructional video for the Schaffer method seemed to be helpful to most students.
  • Students were interested and invested in their topics they self-selected.
  • Students saw the connections between their notes and the body paragraphs they composed.
  • Though not every student completed the entire paper, they still had rich learning experiences they grew their research and writing skills.  Those who did finish expressed tremendous pride in their work.
  •  I felt fairly comfortable with the flexible/rolling deadlines and timeline I established with the research and drafting pieces of the project.  Because each class had such varying groups of learners, I felt the way I designed this part of the unit and the “instruction on demand” helped me better differentiate for everyone.

Stumbling Blocks/Grows/Regrets

  • Many students did not complete the entire paper because we simply ran out of time.  I didn’t anticipate losing some of the instructional time I did due to end of year activities and the Connections teachers being used for end of year specials the last three days of the school year (I had no instructional time with my students the final week).  I didn’t realize this would happen until it was too late though I don’t know we could have started the research project any earlier than we did due to the state testing.  I now wish I had integrated the research work with our informational writing in January and February.
  • Because I realized (too late) not every student would finish the paper in spite of his/her best efforts, I had to calibrate and rethink how I would fairly assign a final or summative grade (each piece of the project counted as a formative grade).    This challenge only added to my growing discomfort and angst over assigning grades.  {Readings that are adding to my internal conflict about grades and grading are here and here.  I also recommend this post as well.} I desperately  wanted to reward and recognize process and progress for all students, not just those who finished all the pieces of our project.
  • A 40 minute instructional block of time felt awfully insufficient all year, but it felt especially short with this particular unit of writing; even students would comment they wished our class was longer.
  • Not all students had an opportunity to publish their work (even if incomplete) on our project blog because again, we simply ran out of time.
  • Because I didn’t realize when my actual last day of instruction was with the students (the end  of the year is markedly different in middle school from high school), very few students had an opportunity to engage in any self-assessment of their project (grade 7 and grade 8 or their reflections on their work over the last year.   Even though school has been out nearly two weeks, I still feel rather sick about this glaring hole in our final unit.
  • Even though I tried to build in what I felt was ample time for all pieces of the project, I misjudged what students needed by about a week.  Gauging how much time was sufficient for my students in all three grades I taught (6, 7, and 8) was an ongoing challenge for me all year.
  • Though I’ll be teaching 11th and 12th Language Arts classes in another district next year, I want to introduce research skills in small doses earlier in the academic year.

Even with the challenges I have outlined, I am still happy with the outcomes of the project because the students had meaningful learning experiences that emphasized depth and process.  They also picked incredibly interesting topics including:

  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Exoplanets
  • Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963
  • 2017 Nissan GT-R
  • Chattahoochee River Water Wars
  • Effectiveness of Adidas Adiprene
  • Assorted endangered animals (causes, issues, solutions)
  • German Shepherds as superior police dogs
  • Best treatments for breast cancer
  • Medical therapies for depression
  • How to get a job at ESPN
  • How to safely enjoy off-roading activities
  • Advances in forensic science
  • Syria/chemical weapons used on children
  • Bermuda Triangle
  • Climate change
  • Concussions and soccer
  • Photography
  • Lowrider culture
  • Career research on becoming an Army Ranger

I was impressed by the breadth of topics my 7th and 8th graders chose!

How This Writing Project Will Inform My Work as a Teacher Moving Forward

I also felt that of all the research projects I’ve done with the students, this is the one where I had the most day to day hands on involvement because I was able to give so much formative assessment and feedback on demand with every student.  The day to day work, conferencing, and examination of work together (as well as feedback provided after hours in advance of a face to face conversation the next day) really helped me to know my students as learners and the work they were doing.  Though I did not quite get the point that Rebekah O’Dell did after her first year trying a gradeless classroom, the intense focus on feedback and regular interaction fueled our work even though we were all fighting the end of the year weariness that comes even in the best of circumstances.   I found myself feeling a bit bereft and not wanting the year to end because these experiences made me realize there was so much still left for my students and I to learn together.  Even as I write this statement, I feel tears welling up in my eyes and though I’m looking forward to my adventures at my new school, I feel sadness that I will not have more time with my War Eagle writers again.

Though I know it is not possible for me to enact a gradeless classroom next year, I do want to be more intentional about these kinds of rich, regular interactions and the emphasis on feedback because I’ve had a taste of what is possible and the shift that can happen for both teachers and students.  As Rebekah O’Dell shared in her post,

“Changing the way I graded changed everything in my classroom.

Many of my hopes for this project were realized — as I gave up bits of my control, students found their voice in the classroom and in their writing. Students became risk-takers in all the best ways. They accounted for their mess-ups and  for their enormous victories. They learned to tell me what they needed.

But something even more significant happened.  Somehow, as a result of removing grades on individual assignments, I developed the deepest relationships I have ever had with students. Changing the grades didn’t just change the classroom atmosphere or the students’ work ethic or my paper load. Somehow, changing the grades changed our hearts— theirs and mine. More than ever before, I knew them and they truly knew me.

In a career of experimentation, this particular change — this heart change — has been the most profound.

The biggest reward for me was this: relationships, which led to community. My classroom finally felt the way I’ve always wanted it to feel. I walked into class daily with the freedom to be the teacher I always want to be.”

Isn’t that what we all want for ourselves and our students?  I am thankful for this last year that has given me glimpses of what could be for me and my students; I am forever thankful for my War Eagle Writers at Chestatee Academy and my principal, Jennifer Kogod, who gave me freedom to try and innovate in our writing studio.  I am thankful for the growth spurt I had this past year as a teacher and want to continue on this path in 2017-18 as I keep growing into the teacher I want to be.

Inquiring, Sharing, and Igniting Idea Sparks with 5 Corners

On our third and final day of our Lanier Schools Academy Institute, we participated in a fun and engaging activity that reminded me of the Harvey Daniels written conversation strategies.   Lanier High teacher Brooke Webb and LSTC Rhonda Stroud led us through a variation of the Four Corners learning activity, dubbing ours Five Corners because we had five questions to contemplate in small groups about our district LMS platform, Desire2Learn.  Our essential question was “How can eClass (Desire2Learn) help my students with PBL?”

Brooke and Rhonda ensured we were in mixed groups of grade levels and subject areas by giving each teacher a sticky note numbered 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.  We then went to our assigned table (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5) so that each group has an established starting point.  Each table had a question for the group to consider; the basic protocol was that you wrote your individual response, and then the group discussed and shared the responses.  We spent roughly 5 minutes at each table before rotating to the next “station’ or table with question.   You could also place a check mark next to responses from your peers that reflected your own practice or experiences.

As we moved through the stations, we could see what other groups had written and shared.  After we added our own responses and placed a check mark next to all answers that applied to our own practice/experience, we discussed the ideas shared from the other groups.  We rotated through all stations until we returned to our station that was our starting point.

We then looked at the responses shared by all groups at our initial station and grouped the responses into categories and tabulated our response to collect data to look for trends and patterns in the responses.  Some groups created simple bar graphs or charts by hand; we had a teacher in our group who was an Excel expert, so she created a beautiful graph for our group.

We then did a large group share out; this part of the activity was especially meaningful as fellow teachers not only shared the data, but teachers had the opportunity to talk about specific responses.  This small and large group work gave us ideas and strategies for using Desire2Learn in our classrooms and was a terrific springboard for the mini-lesson on Desire2Learn presented after the activity by Brooke Webb.  The learning experience and subsequent mini-lesson left me feeling energized and excited about incorporating Desire2Learn into my daily classroom instruction as well as PBL experiences for my students.

After we finished the activity and mini-lesson, Brooke and Rhonda hung up our work as a gallery on the ends of bookcases in the library (our beautiful learning space for the week) so that we could browse the work more closely during our collaborative work time and breaks.

This is another great variation on written conversation strategies that can encourage inquiry and crowdsourcing of ideas and knowledge.  I’m already thinking about how I can use this with my 11th and 12th grade readers and writers come August!  Kudos to Brooke and Rhonda for leading us through a rich and meaningful learning experience!

On a side note, the learning space also facilitated this learning activity.  I felt right at home in our beautiful media center because the Artcobell tables and chairs on wheels supported this kind of learning activity that involved movement as well as small group to large group work.  Over the last three years, I’ve been lucky to work in a library or classroom space where I had this kind of furniture; the one year I did not, I was absolutely miserable and felt stymied by immobile heavy tables and chairs.  These kinds of learning experiences are much easier to facilitate when you have a learning space that supports the design drivers of the kind of learner experience you’re trying to create.  As more schools incorporate inquiry driven and active learning activities, I think it is more important than ever for schools to closely examine their learning spaces and determine what they need to change in common learning areas as well as classrooms to support the vision for learning.

My End of Year Self-Assessment, Part 1

Original photo by Buffy J. Hamilton

As part of the Georgia Teacher Keys Effectiveness System (TKES) , the common evaluation system designed for building teacher effectiveness and ensuring consistency and comparability throughout the state, we have an end of year conference with our supervising administrator.  My principal, Mrs. Jennifer Kogod, asked us to prepare a written self-assessment as a springboard for our face to face end of year conference.

I wrote way more than than was required, but composing my thoughts on how well I did meeting my professional TKES goals was a great reflective exercise.  I’ll write an additional and broader “end of year review” to piggyback on this post, but because this year was such an important one of learning and growth, I wanted to share it here on the blog.  Because I was a media specialist when TKES was first piloted, this is my first year being evaluated as a classroom teacher with the TKES platform.


Buffy Hamilton Title I Writing Teacher
Self-Assessment
2016-17 Academic Year
May 2, 2017

Original Goal Statement:

Knowing that student writing promotes lasting learning, I will implement Jim Vopat’s method of writing circles with all of my Writer’s Workshop and Writing Connections classes to help students improve writing fluency and skills across multiple genres. The evidence for achieving the goal will be an action research study examining student work and student self-assessment portfolios crafted between September and April.

Target Performance Standards:
• Standard 3: Instructional Strategies
• Standard 5: Assessment Strategies
• Standard 6: Assessment Uses

Strategies:

Students will work in writing circles to choose writing topics, types of writing pieces within a genre unit of study we are studying as a class, share writing, provide regular feedback on writing pieces, and draft two at least two days a week in class. We will use writing cycles to lead to regular intervals of publishing our best work.

I will observe and take notes on writing group meetings as well as hold writing conferences with individual students; I will keep notes on these observations and conferences as data.

My Reflections and Self-Assessment

My original goal was to implement Jim Vopat’s writing circles method to help facilitate student writing growth and fluency across multiple genres. Although this particular approach was ultimately not a good fit for where my grades 6-8 learners were, I was still able to accomplish many of the same targets that were embedded in the writing circle method:

• Students had regular opportunities to brainstorm, explore, and self-select their writing topics.
• Students engaged in a wide variety of writing genres, including personal narratives, poetry, informational writing (through zines), problem-solution writing, persuasive (grade 6) and argumentative writing (grades 7 and 8), and research-based writing.
• Students had regular opportunities to share their work through class readings, Google Documents, gallery walks of student work, peer editing and review, and our class KidBlogs.
• Students in each grade wrote regularly every week–students engaged in writing on a daily basis including Writer’s Notebook entries, Quickwrites, paragraphs, essays, extended pieces of writing, and shorter pieces of writing that were part of our daily work of thinking through our writing.

Reflections By Professional Standards

Standard 3: Instructional Strategies

I tried a wide range of instructional strategies for writing this year as I drew upon the work of literacy leaders like Kelly Gallagher, Allison Marchetti, Rebekah O’Dell, Harvey Daniels, Jim Wilhelm, Nancy Steineke, and Gretchen Bernabei. I also borrowed ideas from fellow Language Arts teachers I know through Twitter.

In particular, I used a great deal of modeling and mentor texts with my students—these mentor texts were not only pieces from other writers, but I frequently used my students’ work as a mentor text across grade levels. I also tried different methods of keeping writers’ notebooks across all grade levels and Ralph Fletcher’s “greenbelt” writing with 6th graders.

Standard 5: Assessment Strategies and Standard 6: Assessment Uses

These two standards are the area I have wrestled with throughout the year. Increasingly, I am thinking about how “grading” differs from assessment and what exactly a “grade” means, particularly in a writer’s workshop environment. Throughout most of my career, assessment and grading have been treated as a concept that is scientific and pure, and that if we establish solid learning targets and design rubrics aligned to those tools, then all should be fine and good, right? However, I see more and more areas of gray, especially when it comes to struggling writers. I sometimes wonder how grades influence how they see themselves as writers and if that grade and the feedback you try to include with the rubric has any real value to middle school writers. I also am not sure if the grade and assessments I have given/administered will actually correlate to the Milestones writing tasks since they are 1. All evidence-based writing and 2. Writing that is inherently dependent on the students’ ability to read and comprehend multiple texts. Consequently, I have concerns about the limitations of a Milestones writing score as it really assesses only one type of writing and even with that, I am not sure about the validity of that score and if the assessment REALLY measures what it intends to do so.  (*Note:  our test data indicates my 7th and 8th writing cohorts both showed improvement in every area of the writing assessment on the EOG Milestones; they also showed marked improvement in other areas of the Milestones ELA*).

I believe my most effective assessment method was one of formative assessment with writing conferences. Thanks to the work of Carl Anderson, I feel I have shown tremendous growth in my ability to engage in meaningful writing conferences with my students. I believe this is one of the things I have done that has had the most impact on my young writers. I am thankful for small classes that allow me to do this on a regular basis; the only limitation was time as our classes meet for roughly 40 minutes, and it’s hard to get to each student in that time frame.

I have also given students multiple opportunities to self-assess their work both informally and formally. Helping them to know on their own when a piece of writing is “finished” and giving them revising and writing strategies to evaluate and determine this for themselves is something I’ve worked on all year. I believe this is one of the ultimate benchmarks of growth when a student looks more to himself or herself and less to me to understand when a piece of writing is complete and why/how that is so.

I have tried keeping hard copy student portfolios as well as digital, but I haven’t quite yet found a means that feels efficient and accessible. This endeavor is one I will continue to contemplate and work on during 2017-18.

Though not all students have grown as writers in the ways I hoped, many have shown tremendous growth in different areas. I am proud that all students have been challenged and given multiple opportunities to wrestle with ideas and their thinking; I am also proud that students have used writing not just an end product but as a tool for thinking and expression.