As I reflect on the last two weeks, it seems a lifetime in my world of teaching and learning has passed. The first six weeks of school have been a roller coaster as I juggle many interesting challenges. These challenges may or may not give context to the focal point of this post, and I feel it is important to lay them out first, especially since I have always tried to be honest and transparent about my work whether things are flying high or if I’m navigating rough waters.
The Struggle Is Real, Or When It Isn’t All Ponies, Fairies, and Unicorns
- A heavier teaching load than what I was used to at the high school level (I teach 6 classes every day plus see an advisement group and/or my SOAR Art History and Artists group which essentially is like having 7 classes). In my high school teaching experience, I have typically taught 5 courses daily.
- I’m teaching writing courses that are brand new to our school—the exhilarating part is that I get to create everything from scratch and have complete control over what I’m doing! The exhausting part is the time and energy it takes to create everything from scratch, but I am glad to have complete control over the direction of the courses. With that said, I do regular second-guessing of my instructional design. I frequently vacillate between feeling I am absolutely on the right track and feeling I am just hopelessly misguided. This is fairly normal when you’re teaching something new or trying new strategies, but it is still unsettling even when you to expect those feelings.
- I’m an academic elective not tied to any specific test for this academic year, yet I worry how I should be grading my students (and just about so many things problematic with grading in general); I also worry whether my students’ grades should align with the outcome on the scores for the writing task of the end of year state test (as in what if there is a huge insane gap between the two? Does it mean anything at all?).
- Because I’m in the “Connections” rotation, my classes meet only 40 something odd minutes on any given day (we run two schedules through the week, another source of befuddlement for this former high school teacher) compared to the normal 50-60 minutes for a regular academic class. This time period feels insanely short to me, especially for students who are struggling writers and need time to get traction with their work.
- Though I try to connect with other faculty, especially Language Arts teachers, my schedule doesn’t really allow any time during the day to do so, and I often feel like an island or outlier.
- I’m trying to figure out who my writers are, their histories, and their literacy narratives. What are their prior literacy experiences, what have been previous expectations from other teachers, and how do they see themselves as writers and learners? I’m discovering there are many complex layers to peel back.
- Most students did not choose to be in my classes; they were placed because of a score tied to writing on a standardized test. Consequently, quite a few were angry and/or confused for the first few weeks even though I and the guidance counselor did all we could to allay those feelings. I’m trying to figure out how we might reframe academic electives so that students don’t perceive them in a negative light. There are days that I feel my class is not enough for some of my students whose needs are intense and possibly beyond the scope of our course though I’ll continue my best to do whatever I can.
I am thankful for colleagues in my building who have been a sounding board and source of support—our instructional coach Sarah Widincamp, my principal Jennifer Kogod, my assistant principals Libbie Armstrong and Chuck Bennett, and fellow Connections teacher Suzanne Ward. I am indebted to many friends and colleagues for their virtual support, especially in the last month—Jennifer Lund, Nancy Steineke, Dorsey Sammataro, Anja Tigges, Tess MacMillan. I am so tired right now that I am sure I am omitting other people, but to everyone who has lifted me on days I’ve cried and celebrated with me when I’ve seen my kids take significant steps forward—you will never know what your good vibes, sage advice, and non-judgmental ears have meant! I know many of you can appreciate the cognitive and affective dissonance you feel when you encounter unexpected situations and/or knotty challenges.
I don’t know if this backstory will contextualize the focus of this post, but as I shared earlier, I do believe it is important as I feel I’m constantly re-calibrating my lessons and activities. Making adjustments is something good teachers do, but never in my 24 years of teaching have I felt I had to constantly tweak, drop back, and revisit my plans on a near daily basis like I have this fall. It has been a consolation to see other experienced and skilled teachers have similar challenges, but it still is unsettling and frankly draining to feel so off-kilter. However, I am trying to view this as an opportunity to grow and learn.
Assessing Student Work: An Opportunity to Revisit, Reteach, and Revise
After spending an intense month on our personal narrative study, my students finished their revised drafts on Friday, September 2. When I began evaluating their work over the weekend, I felt dismayed as the drafts fell short of my expectations. I thought that with extensive time to write in class, modeling of the writing strategies, examination of mentor texts, LOTS of scaffolding, and plentiful time to draft, revise, and work with peers in class, my students submitted drafts would shine. While there were merits to every submission, many students unfortunately still struggled with their writing and using the strategies for an effective personal narrative in their writing. While a few students clearly put forth little to no effort, most truly put an enormous amount of energy into their revised drafts. In hindsight, I could have looked at their work as progress if I compared it to where we began, yet I felt there were still some gaps in understanding that I just could not ignore. I was worried that many students still didn’t quite grasp “exploding the moment” and “slow motion” writing to truly show their “seed” topic instead of tell about their experience. Consequently, many of the personal narratives were straying into “watermelon” territory with a great deal of telling but little showing with descriptive details. In addition, I also recognized that many of my students were struggling to write clear, complete sentences to the point that it was difficult to understand their final drafts.
I knew that we were not yet at a point to jump into a major study of sentence structure because the time just was not right, plus I felt I needed time to think through what the best approach would be to address these writing challenges. I decided that we would look at our major wobbles from a perspective of writer’s craft and sentence craft. We revisited the major writer’s craft strategies for composing a personal narrative, and I pulled together a resource folder for every student table/center with hard copies of all our examples, notes, and strategies. I also did a brief one day mini-lesson on the three major sentence problems (fragments, run-ons, and comma splices) knowing that this was not enough to do a deep dive with these issues, but I wanted to at least get it on their radar in a gentle way where we looked at the problems and simple fix-it strategies.
Because I had evaluated the writing pieces online in Canvas only to discover I had no way to pull down their completed as a printed hard copy, I printed blank copies of the rubric for students, and I gave them time to read their scored digital rubric and copy over the points they earned in each area. They also had time to read the comments (I tried to give every student at least 3-4 comments) and ask questions about the points or comments. I then gave students some benchmark point values and asked them to place a star by any areas where they may have come up a little short. Once students could see their areas of struggle, I gave them a menu of writer’s craft and sentence craft skills that they could choose to target in a mini-revision of ONE paragraph or section of their personal narratives. I asked them to choose two skills to target–one from each menu—based on their rubric scores and what they felt they needed to tackle. I thought offering choice was a good idea, but in hindsight, even a limited menu of choices may have been overwhelming for my kids in all three grades (6, 7, 8). Students were to mark their selections in a Google Form; I also gave them a hard mini-copy of the menu for marking their choices and keeping in their Writer’s Notebooks.
I thought a mini-revision of one section of their story and choice in the skill to practice/improve was reasonable/manageable for my kids, but I quickly realized even this was still quite overwhelming for most of my kids. Even with this adjustment, I had kids who struggled to rewrite with intention and purpose one section; though I tried to make it explicit as to what we were doing with student created examples, checklists, and hard copies of these resources, I had quite a few in each class and every grade who still could not connect that we were doing a mini-revision of one section or paragraph and practicing ONE skill using the strategies I had provided them and that we had learned about the previous month. However, I had quite a few who either quickly caught on to what we were doing or then picked up the beat and jumped in with their work.
Students had three class days, a weekend, and a weeknight (last Monday) to get this revision completed. For the revision, I asked them to:
Note: I did not introduce all of these slides at once. These slides were shared a few at a time over a period of about 10 days. I shared them as one slide deck here to avoid posting multiple Google presentations.
- Draft the revision in their Writer’s Notebook.
- Highlight, circle, and or draw arrows to where they were practicing in the mini-revision the strategies for the skill they picked to target.
- Write 2 sentence explaining how/why/what they were doing to demonstrate the writer’s craft or sentence craft skill. I provided them a menu of sentence starters they could use to help them communicate what they were doing; even with this scaffolding, though, many struggled to convey specifically what they were doing as writers in the mini-revision.
- I asked students to either hand copy or to cut and paste the original paragraph/section they were revising and tape/paste it onto the micro-progression chart I provided them (we did a mini-lesson on these charts as well). In addition, I asked students to describe the problem or “wobble” with the original version.I thought the micro-progression chart, which I learned about from Kate and Maggie Roberts in their wonderful book DIY Literacy, would be a great vehicle for students to chart their growth with their targeted skill in their mini-revision.
Again, in hindsight, maybe I should have incorporated this tool back in August and targeted each of the personal narrative writing writing craft skills with these charts. However, I thought this time was opportune for introducing the tool. After re-reading the section on micro-progressions in the book, looking at their video (linked above), and reading blog posts from other teachers, I crafted this template for my students thinking it was the perfect fit for what we were doing.
- I asked students to copy the finished mini-revision draft (several students did two) into the “better” column of the chart (see below). I asked students to copy the explanatory statements into the chart as well in the bottom box. Below you can see their work in progress:
I felt three days in class, a weekend, and a weeknight were more than enough time to accomplish this task. Consequently, I had a hard deadline of students coming to class prepared with the draft in the Writer’s Notebook and the first two columns of their micro-progressions chart completed at the beginning of class this past Tuesday (September 13). I stressed the importance of preparation because our next step was to do a gallery walk in which students would get to look at each other’s charts and provide “glow” and “grow” statements to help each other think about how to move from the “Better” version of their mini-revision to the “best” version they could do later in the week.
Sadly, very few of my students came with the completed pieces of work in spite of an abundance of time, support, and resources. Here is a rough breakdown of the percentage who were prepared and able to prepare in the gallery walk; the rest of the students had an alternative assignment to complete.
- 2nd period 8th Writer’s Workshop–about 4 students out of 16
- 3rd period 8th Writer’s Workshop–about 6 students out of 20
- 3rd period 6th Writing Connections–about 3 students out of 20
- 4th period 7th Writing Connections–about 6 students out of 20
- 5th period 7th Writing Connections–about 15 students out of 20
- 6th period 6 Writing Connections–about 15 students out of 20 (many thanks to my co-teacher ESOL teacher Heather Blaker for the intense help she did with students who needed it to help them move forward).
As you can imagine, I was very disappointed with the classes with the low completion rates; it made for a difficult day in those classes as something happens to the energy of a gallery walk when few students are able to participate. With the exception of my 7-4 class (I had to leave to attend an IEP meeting, and I think my absence factored heavily into the less than stellar experience they had), the students who were prepared put forth a great effort and got some valuable feedback. Once I got everyone settled who was prepared and who wasn’t, I reviewed the gallery walk instructions with those able to participate.
Students laid out on their table area/assigned seating their Writer’s Notebook entry along with their charts and their “Grows” and “Glows” feedback form.
Students then walked about and gave each other grows and glows; I kept suggestions on the board to help students if they got stuck for a glow or grow comment to share.
When students finished, they completed a Gallery Walk reflections handout in which they recorded:
- What they liked most about the gallery walk
- Their favorite glow statement
- Their favorite grow statement
- What they thought their next steps might be to move to the “better” version of their mini-revision after reading the feedback.
It was exciting to see the students who participated in the gallery walk taking their work as writers seriously. In addition, two of my administrators were able to attend the gallery walk in period 7-5; my principal, Jennifer Kogod, stayed for over 15 minutes and participated, reading student work and providing feedback. I was absolutely over the moon that she was part of our learning experience, and I think the kids were energized and thrilled about her participation as well! Mrs. Kogod is such a literacy advocate, and she is so encouraging of my work even when I’m filled with self-doubt. To have your administrators make time to visit your classroom is just everything; those of you who teach understand the importance of these moments, especially when they happen regularly. I am deeply appreciative of their visibility in our classrooms and genuine interest in the work of both teachers and students!
Students then had Tuesday evening, Wednesday evening, Thursday in class, and all of Friday to compose one more draft of their mini-revision. I reminded them to use the gallery walk feedback and the resource folders with our strategies and examples to help them think about how they might move from “better” to “best”; I also asked them to articulate how/why the best version was their very best work. We reviewed the checklist of what would need to be finished for their charts; students received a hard copy of this chart to keep handy.
Most students worked very hard both days in class, especially my last class, which is 6th grade Writing Connections. After so many ups, downs, and struggles, it was gratifying to see students having “writerly” conversations and really thinking about their work. The best part was seeing smiles on students’ faces as they turned in their work and seeing that sense of accomplishment in their eyes.
Next Steps for Me: Assessment and Reflection
I am now preparing to assess their charts and will do a follow-up post in a week or two. I am hopeful that this process has pushed students’ thinking. I’m still not sure if my rubric is the right or best evaluation instrument, but it’s the one I’ll go with for now. I will pull the exemplary charts that show growth and progress; I hope to photograph them and create a living wall in the hallway outside my classroom by incorporating QR codes into the chart photos and linking QR codes those to video interviews with students who will briefly tell us about their work in their charts. As soon as I can make this happen, I’ll post photos and videos of this living wall of student work!
I plan to have students put these charts into their writing folders (these stay in class) and become part of the student portfolio. I want to give my students chances to reflect on their work and progress as we move through the year, and I also want to look closely at their work for signs of growth as writers. I need to finish reading a couple of professional books on assessing writing to help me move forward on this front; though I have taught for a long time, I find myself increasingly uneasy about the way I evaluate writing and question so many concepts about grades. I will save these worries and my professional readings I’m undertaking to tackle these concerns for a post to be published soon.
While I feel uncertain about so much, I can say with certainty that I feel the micro-progression tools are valuable ,and I will definitely use them again though I feel I’ll bring them into our work at an earlier point in our next unit of writing study, poetry. With all this said, what do you do when a writing unit doesn’t go as you planned? How do you gauge if you expected too much or not enough from your students? I think I should have done a little more modeling and perhaps brought in a few more mentor texts, but I’m still reflecting on what else I will do differently in the future. I also wish I’d had this book by Georgia Heard in my hands about a month earlier (my own fault for not ordering sooner). Are you using micro-progression charts as part of your work as writing teachers? If so, how? I welcome any constructive feedback you all might have to help me keep growing as a teacher!
You can grab the PDFs of the handouts I created by clicking here (shared folder in Google Drive).