Yesterday my colleague Mary stopped by my office and asked me to look over her daughter Isabel’s writing. I could tell from the way Mary approached me that she was upset about the score Isabel received. I read over the narrative several times, carefully rereading for each lens on the rubric. When I went to share my findings with Mary, I did not mention numbers. I shared how great it was that Isabel began with action thus writing a lead that pulled me into her story. I noted that she is making great attempts to use dialogue in her writing. Still, Mary’s eyes welled with tears when she recounted how hard Isabel worked on her piece and how discouraged she felt when she earned a score of 68%.
How crushing! As a parent, my heart went out to Mary. As a teacher, writer and mom, my heart ached for Isabel. Isn’t the goal of writing workshop to grow confident, independent writers? Writing takes tremendous courage! We make ourselves vulnerable when we write. We share a part of ourselves that we created, take a deep breath and hope it will be well received. Imagine being 8 and doing this? Imagine if the story is incredibly raw and personal? How can we give a child a percentage score on something they poured their heart into?
These thoughts swirled in my mind and then I stopped myself in my tracks and thought, “How many times have I sat down with a stack of student writing and plowed through them diligently checking each item on the rubric and assigning them a grade? How often have I felt the pressure of providing grades for the grade book and lost sight of the writer in front of me?” Like Isabel’s teacher, I had the best of intentions. Yet, this experience made wonder: What it the true purpose of grading and specifically, assessment?
The Purpose of Assessment
Writer’s workshop asks us to broaden the ways we assess student writing. In more traditional methods we assign writing topics, students complete their writing in a relatively short period of time and we grade them accordingly. In writing workshop we give students choice to write about what is meaningful to them, we teach mini-lessons and confer with them over an extended period to develop and craft their writing. This process results in students feeling connected to and invested in their writing. Therefore using rubrics solely as a summative assessment, such as grading an end product, does not serve our student writers. Rather, in workshop assessment is formative and ongoing. Rubrics are used to inform teachers’ instructional decisions, lift the level of student writing and empower students to set goals and take steps to develop their writing.
Still, the realities of grading are tough. They require that teams of colleagues have conversations around the critical question: How do we hold student writing to a standard while protecting a child’s courage to write?
Teacher as Writer
Conversations around assessment will be better informed if teachers write themselves. So here is my call to action: As teachers, we must write! Isabel’s story reminds me of how important it is for teachers to do the work that we ask our students to do. And let’s be honest, it IS hard! From an instructional standpoint, writing helps us to experience the challenges of generating ideas, revision, developing characters, and supporting claims. It allows us to plan instruction to address the roadblocks our students may face along the way.
Most importantly, writing with our students invites them to see us as writers. One colleague shared that when she uses her finished writing as mentor texts, her class is less engaged. The energy shifts when her students see her work through and sometimes struggle with her writing. I firmly believe that students will rise the to challenge if they see their teachers doing the work we ask of them. They value our honesty, our willingness to be vulnerable and the idea that we are all in this together.
When we write with our students and experience the challenges of writing ourselves, we connect with them in meaningful and genuine ways. That connection gives us a new lens and reminds us to see the child in front of us not as a student who scored a 68% on her last writing piece but as Isabel, a beautiful child who is finding her own courage to write.