As I entered the third-grade classroom the classroom teacher approached me and asked if I could assess Daniel’s writing. The teacher and I had been co-teaching a “homegrown” information unit with her students. We had developed a unit that supported the work students were doing in reading workshop. As Harvey Daniels has pointed out in The Curious Classroom there is great power in a student-directed inquiry. Addressing this curricular unit with a mini-inquiry unit was proving to be a great way to engage the students with them leading the way. Students had been working in research clubs with peers researching an animal of their choice. As students were reading books, articles and using online resources they were asked to think about the information they were reading and to jot down in their writing notebooks questions that arose in their minds after reading material about their animal.
Daniel was researching Pandas and had come across the fact that Pandas used to be primarily meat eaters but now are mainly herbivores and eat mostly bamboo. This led him to ask himself why did Pandas change from carnivores to herbivores? That particular resource did not include additional information on the topic. So he then, developed a variety of additional questions to support his research to answer his overarching question. It was very apparent Daniel was excited about exploring more and “finding out” the answer to his wonder question. Next, he researched the diet of the Panda, habitat, environmental factors and more. After collaborating with peers, synthesizing the information that was collected he began to organize his piece onto a page in Adobe Spark. Using technology was truly his medium of choice to share this information.
As I sat next to Daniel I asked the teacher for a copy of the four-point rubric that was used for assessment. She was hoping to have a conversation about the grade for the writing piece. It was apparent she had a grade in mind already and was curious as to my thoughts. There were four areas that Daniel would be assessed on in order to determine his grade on the piece; communicating information and ideas, producing writing that was clear and organized, grammar and mechanics, and spelling in written work.
I placed the rubric between Daniel and I and asked him if he was familiar with the tool. He had not seen it before so I took a few minutes to explain how it was organized, the components and most importantly how he might use it as a resource to improve his writing. We focused on communicating information and ideas. To begin we read the description under meeting NYS and district standards that read, writers taught readers information about a topic, developing the topic with facts, definitions, and details.* I explained to Daniel that we would be looking for those components as we read through his writing piece and that we would be jotting down evidence of this work. It was clear from the start that he had included multiple facts and some definitions to help his readers understand the information he was presenting. As we both jotted down the evidence from his writing you could see the excitement and pride building. Daniel then asked, “Mrs. Fenton how do I get from a three to a four?” So then we began to examine the description in level four, which lifted the level of the work to include concrete details and examples related to the topic. Right away Daniel was able to demonstrate how he had provided examples of how Pandas have different bacteria in their digestive systems that allow them to digest meat. Daniel’s next question was my favorite, “Mrs. Fenton what might include in my writing to make it even better?” “Should I include the research study that I found that explains more about the digestive system?”
When I sat down beside Daniel it was clear he was “done” with his writing piece. What made him decide to continue to make his writing better? What inspired him to continue working on his writing piece? What started as a conversation about grading turned into much more. By naming the strategies and components he had included in his writing Daniel was inspired to find new ways to improve his own writing. With very little coaching from myself and his teacher, he had decided to spend more time with the writing not to improve his grade on the assignment but to improve his writing.