“Hi, how are you?” I ask as a student takes a seat beside me.
“Fine. You?” he says averting my eyes and looking at his biography narrative lit brightly on my computer screen.
We’re sitting in a dark corner of the classroom to discuss the student’s biography posted on his blog while the other twenty-nine seventh grade writers are working on the upcoming teacher-for-a-day project. (Each student is researching a grammar topic or literary device to present to the class during writing workshop time. They are mostly quiet knowing their dedicated time with me is coming up.) I’ve been meeting with students for four days now trying to give each one some personalized feedback and, in some cases, instruction on some strategies or conventions.
“Well, I am happy because this story you wrote about your partner is so beautifully written. I can tell you took great care in getting the sequence of events just right, and this part right here? This dialogue you wrote captures the attitude your partner is giving his mom with just the right bit of humor.”
“Thanks. He is really funny but sneaky, so I wanted to capture that by writing ‘he rolled his eyes.'”
“Yep, you did it. Now, remember when we practiced punctuating dialogue? It looks to me like you know how to do it here, but then below, the punctuation is erratic. The inconsistency makes me wonder if you understand it.”
“Oh, I get it. I just want to add a comma here, before the quotation mark.”
“Right. Okay, so that is just about proofreading. I do want to suggest one part for revision. Are you ready?” I ask. “Because this will make the story ready for publication on Monday.”
“Yes. Show me.”
“So, tell me what this story is really about. I get that it is about taking risks and mother-son tension, but what about that? What about after the argument? What did your partner realize or get about his mom?”
“Well, after the argument, he sort of had a better understanding of where his mom was coming from? Like her perspective? Like thinking about her point of view?”
“I think that might be it, too, but it is your story — well, you are doing the work of showing us your partner’s story. Your job as the author is to bring your readers along — us — me and your classmates. At the end here, do you think you can make that perspective idea come through?” I ask writing “1” next to punctuating dialogue and “2” next to theme on his biography checklist document.
“Yeah, yes. I can do that right now.”
“Great. Here is your checklist. Just spend some time on these two parts, and you’ll be ready to publish on Monday. And thank you for taking such good care of your partner’s story.”
“Thank you,” he says.
As he walks away, I get up to invite Julia to confer.
A writing assessment process (never-ending)
Just like the writing is a process, so, too, is writing assessment. As students work on a piece of writing, we are there to support his or her process — brainstorming, drafting, revising with new strategies or techniques, proofreading, resting, coming back to, revising, and on. This is really assessment. What’s working? What’s not? How can we make improvements or try something new? What do we need to workshop in a new way? However, when we come to the end, when a piece needs to stand on its own for an audience on a particular day, well, we might be ready for evaluation: at this point in time, what do you know and what can you do? Writing teachers must embrace the assessment process for an ethical evaluation.
Teach grammar in context (and reteach)
Students write and write, and only when they have a solid draft do I start with mini-lessons on a few skills or techniques they can try. For the biographical sketch, I explicitly taught 2 skills: dialogue and complex sentences. The dialogue was essential in bringing alive the people in the stories, and complex sentences (starting sentences with subordinating conjunctions) help students illuminate time and place, cause and effect — important transition markers in a narrative piece. Students took notes and practiced in their journals, and then we went right into their drafts to find or revise-to-include these techniques.
For dialogue, we just had a conversation on paper:
“I’d like to know what you want to be when you grow up?” Dr. Donovan asked leaning in with a writing between her brows.
“Well, Dr. Donovan, I think I want to become __________________,” I replied _____________.
“And why is that?” she asked.
“Geesh, I guess it’s because______________,” I replied somewhat annoyed.
For complex sentences, we just practiced a few sentences together before moving into our drafts to revise or add this sentence structure.
Whole-class mini-lessons tend to work well for the majority of writers, especially writers who have some experience with these conventions, but some writers will need additional guidance, which is why the conferences are so important: I can personalize feedback and instruction.
Confer individually (personal-ized support)
Making time to confer with students one-on-one is so hard to do, especially when you have 30 plus students, but after students have drafted and revised their writing to try out new skills, this teacher-student (writer-writer) conference is the experience that can really make the difference to a writer. I meet with each writer to talk about the status of her piece, noticing what she does well while pushing her just a little further in her craft. I love to talk about how the piece is capturing humanity and offering something meaningful to the reader before suggesting one or two places to try something new or integrate a technique. This is where I can reteach the whole-class lesson or offer something new that I hadn’t yet introduced to the class but a particular student is ready to try.
Reflection before evaluation (current draft)
After the conference, students go back to their piece one more time with specific notes to inform their revisions. With a line-by-line read through and a few tweaks to wording or punctuation, the piece is ready to publish in its current form. A piece can always be tweaked or reworked, but this is our community-imposed deadline to publish and evaluate progress.
On the day of publishing, I ask students color code the techniques I want to assess. I’ve already read their drafts and revisions, so this makes it easier for me to evaluate specific skills. In addition to the color coding, I ask students to write a little reflection at the end of their piece to honor writerly choices and reiterate the purpose of the particular form. For example, in this biography piece, I ask students to reflect on the following: 1) what they want readers to notice that is deliberate or innovative — anything that a reader might miss or misinterpret, 2) what they are most proud of or a favorite line, and 3) what revisions they made after the teacher conference (as a way of seeing what they took away from meeting with me). Perhaps another question could illuminate which parts are still in development from the writer’s perspective. Here’s an example:
Have a publication party (and enjoy)
Every quarter, I set a date for publication to celebrate the work in its current state. I call it our “publication party” and bring some cookies. When students know there are real people reading their work, they will attend to the details that might interrupt a reader’s flow.
Reading the finished pieces is an enjoyable experience with no need for feedback–it’s not the time. I celebrate alongside other writers. We’re nurturing our community by sharing one another’s writing and offering personal responses, which I guess is a form of feedback; we use 3-perspective responses.
Evaluation (a judgment at one moment in time)
I use standards-based assessment, which means that I do not score the final piece with a single number or letter. I look at the standards I taught and assess whether or not students are competent in those standards at a specific moment in time. I never evaluate creativity or judge how one writer’s use of dialogue is better than another. For the most part, if I’ve implemented the assessment process well, all students can demonstrate competency in the standards (and I don’t take home stacks of papers because we’ve used workshop time to assess and because those stories do not belong to me; I’m just part of the process).
Ongoing assessment (not an oxymoron)
The final step in the assessment process does not involve grades. As I read and enjoy the publications, I look for trends in strengths and needs for the next project. Assessment is an ongoing process of observing, feedback, learning, practice, observing, feedback, etc.
Just like there is a writing process and not the writing process, there is an assessment process for each student not the assessment process. Make time to personalize the process and remember that any ending is arbitrary and temporary, for tomorrow we do not start anew, we continue.
Here are a few sample biographies for your enjoyment. Notice: I wrote one for my partner, Shreya.