Slice of Life 8: Studying Student Writing

(During March, I am blogging daily as a part of  the Slice of Life Story Challenge!)

Picture a workshop setting in a convention center (non-school environment) and 35 third grade teachers and administrators spending a day discussing and increasing their knowledge of standards-based reading, writing, speaking, listening and language as well as instruction and assessment.  Folks are literally out of their work space as the participants come from multiple districts.

The first very specific task:  Read the assigned standard, Writing Anchor 1, the expanded description and one piece of student work.  Suspending judgement based on your own knowledge of third grade writers, how well does this piece represent understanding of the standards?  What would be strengths?  What would be areas to work on? The participants were asked to do this individually and then as a table group of four or five.

This was a hard task.  Questions immediately bubbled up.

“Did the student have help?”  “Was this at the beginning of the year?”  “Was there a prompt?”

Sometimes with writing conversations/assessments there may be too much concern about the “back story” of the task.  Work with it. List your questions. Consider whether they really must be answered to complete the task. Are they “need to know?”  or “want to know?” questions that need answered before continuing the work?

The second part of the task was to consider additional standards beyond standard 1 that could be assessed with this piece of student work.  We were looking for “multiplicity” or “bundling” of standards in order to have a broader view of the writing piece.  During writing instruction, formative assessment, conferences and mini-lessons would have provided additional information about the specifics of the students’ improvement.  Teachers were urged to consider all of the third grade ELA standards:  reading, writing, speaking and listening, and language.

The conversations were rich. Highlighted words and phrases in the student work matched the highlighted sections in the standards document (color coding!).  Some annotated the student work.  The level of care and attention given to this student’s work was exactly what I would want for my child, grandchild, and all children!

The Pièce de résistance:  Three table groups met together in the foyer to discuss their conversations and findings.  There was a lot of agreement in the group of approximately 15.  But what was most memorable to me was this report to the entire group at the conclusion of this work:  “These folks discussed this writing piece for approximately 30 minutes.  Not once in the 30 minutes did a teacher mention spelling or handwriting.  That is important to note.  Kudos to these teachers.”  Wow! What is most important in student writing?  It’s easy to get sidetracked with the cosmetic appearance.  It is much harder to dig into quality instruction that gets at the heart of the claim, evidence (facts, details, reasons) and development of the ideas.

(And of course, the group did have wonderful ideas about additional standards that could be reviewed in addition to Writing Anchor 1.)

When  you study student writing to determine how the writing is progressing in relation to the standards, what is your process?  What do your conversations sound like?  
How do the teachers, students, and parents know that the writing is improving?

Special thanks to the hosts of the Slice of Life Challenge:  StaceyTaraDanaBetsyAnna, and Beth.   More Slice of Life posts can be found at  Two Writing Teachers .

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23 responses

  1. This workshop sounds productive and rewarding. It’s been too long since I had a chance to participate in an assessment task and discussion like this.

    1. Thanks, Terje!

      There is so much learning that comes from the collaborative discussion! Having the opportunity to hear different voices is critical!

  2. Yesterday I invited my parents in to browse work we have recently created. One was our realistic fiction piece. A mom picked up her son’s story filled with catchy dialogue and began reading. Then asked if she could add editing marks. I immediately said,”No. Just enjoy it as it is written.” I recalled that her son is still learning how to use quotation marks and it is not what I was helping him to focus on. Instead, the focus was on creating meaningful scenes with Show Not Tell. Your proud comment about your teachers not focusing on spelling or handwriting made me think of this mom. Maybe I need to do more to educate the parents on the MANY ways to celebrate a writing piece, editting just being one. Your post inpired me. So great to hear that writing teachers were focused on growing writers and not fixing a writing piece.

    1. Sally,
      I love how you talk about the MANY ways to celebrate a writing piece. The editing marks that I added to student papers in green or purple ink never helped the students edit their own work. I am a great editor but the goal is for independence in student work as we “grow writers.”

      I also love this post by Anna http://annagcockerille.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/when-students-just-arent-getting-it-looking-for-the-can-before-the-cant/ We must build the culture of “can – do’s!”

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  3. What meaningful work! My district has dropped writer’s workshop in favor of learning modules that have virtually no assessment tasks….I’m left wondering where we are headed but you are giving me faith we will return to best practice and WRITING!

    1. Thanks for your comment! I believe that writer’s workshop is absolutely ESSENTIAL for students to meet the rigor and the demands of #CCSS. I am encouraged that writing instruction is very, very necessary!

  4. Loved your description of the meeting. I am glad I discovered your slice. I especially liked how you focused on the discussion outside the meeting room. You really captured the heart of the message.

    1. Thanks, Laura. It was a fabulous learning day and it was hard to focus on just a piece so I am thankful for working with just a “slice.”

  5. Studying student writing and coming out of it with positiveness is remarkable. So many times we are focused on the negative without seeing the possibilities. This PD must have had great leaders.

    1. Jana,
      The leadership came from a core group of principals and curriculum directors who had a great vision and are a fabulous team. Thanks for recognizing that!

  6. Isn’t it odd, but I think that responses to this are so often defined by a building’s culture. When we’ve done things like this, it’s the main topic of discussion – makes me want to cry. Good for these educators that they have thier priorities right.

    1. Tara,
      You are so correct! I do some district-wide writing assessments where I often have the teachers repeat after me, “Handwriting and neatness do not count!” (sometimes 2 or 3 times!)

      I think it has helped that we have at least 15 districts represented so teachers are hearing “new views” and not perpetuate the current culture!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Tara! Your support is greatly appreciated!

  7. Fran,
    What a great opportunity for your teachers. The gift of time outside the workspace AND being guided in an open-minded way may have brought about those wonderful discussions devoid of comments on spelling and punctuation. I wish I was at the table, such an opportunity to learn.
    I feel like I use the TCRWP rubric/checklist primarily when I look at writing. I know they are linked to standards but honestly I probably should spend more time with the CCSS standards, particularly the language strand. I don’t think the checklist hits that as completely. Love to hear your thinking on this.

    1. Julieanne,

      We will have to continue this conversation this summer, but you are right that the gift of time is critical with the “leader” keeping the group moving without “telling” participants what to think.

      We were not using the #tcrwp checklist but were using rubrics that are standards referenced. We deal a lot with the language standards in speaking and listening as well as in writing.

      Sometimes we have to divorce the contents of the work from the mechanics. That is hard for many of us “old-timers” because mechanics always used to be the “first line” resort!

      Thanks for the comments!

  8. Great post! You really cut to the chase it’s all about the writing process and how that process measures up to the standards.

    1. Thanks!

      Taking a step back from “what I have always done” is sometimes difficult!

  9. I love, love, love seeing teachers clustered around a piece of student writing. And I really believe that these kinds of conversations are totally NECESSARY if we are going to implement the CCSS (or any other writing rubric for that matter). And it’s soooo hard to get some people to understand how incredibly important these conversations actually are!

    1. Carol,

      Thanks so much for your comments. Obviously, I AGREE! If our goal is to change instruction to improve the student learning/results, we have to have a clear picture of the targets. Common understanding and agreement takes a lot of conversations!

  10. This is such meaningful work, to be in a place where everyone teaches the same grade level to talk about the same standards focused on the process. Wish our school did more of that, we are to busy quickly creating curriculum. Thanks for sharing, gives me hope!

    1. Crystal,
      There is much work to do. I believe that everyone needs a deeper understanding first, and the they will be ready to begin working on curriculum. There is a steep learning curve!

  11. […] analysis task stage.  I wrote a bit about that process with our third grade teachers last month in this post three weeks ago. * The next big chunk of time had teachers working in table teams and multiple […]

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