Alright, so we’ve got the new school year off to a good start. We’re setting the tone, getting to know our students, establishing rituals and routines for meaningful learning. It’s a perfect time to spend a few minutes and remind ourselves of what is at the heart of a meaningful ELA learning environment. Here is a quick guide to what makes a writing-based curriculum tick.
- Identifying a goal/product/performance/culmination that you want to achieve with your students that is connected to the world outside the classroom
- Figuring out all of the ways that you and your students can be writers to accomplish that end (writing reflectively, analytically, and creatively)
- Modeling the writing life through the design of the unit and the way you think, talk, and act with your students.
What does the writing life look like in the classroom?
- Catching thoughts, ideas, questions, solutions, passing fancies down on paper/screen to create a reservoir of potential writing material
- Reading models to help you think and do your own writing
- Discussing models to figure out the moves that make the writing work
- Engaging in idea generating conversations to figure out what you might want to write
- Writing….a lot!
- Returning to a piece of writing to elaborate and craft it based on the understanding you’re developing around the moves that make writing strong
- Sharing works in progress for feedback
- Putting the writing out into the world for impact
- Keeping all writing work to be able to access and use at a later date because the writing that happens in class should have multiple lives and serve multiple purposes
- Reflective writing: thinking in writing about life and work; post product analysis; question posing; answer seeking
- Analytic writing: writing about reading; reports; essays; criticism; speeches; technical; informational
- Creative writing: stories, poems, plays, memoir, blogs, hybrid-texts
What are potential culminations?
- Performances: plays, public readings, debates, websites, shows, live museums, installations, works of art
- Publications: books, anthologies, individual pieces, newspaper editorials, letters to officials, websites, blogs
- Actions: meetings with significant people (physically/virtually), rallies, service
The goal is to design writing environments that don’t look, sound, or feel like school in school. That is the irony. Any way that the writing environment can be connected to the lived practice of writing out in the world beyond the classroom means that there is a greater chance that enduring understandings will be developed and life-long reading, writing, and thinking skills will be enhanced.
The Role of Grading and Feedback in a Writing-Based Classroom
When we tune our classrooms to the habits of mind and body of writers, we need to interrogate traditional notions of grading. It quickly becomes obvious that we need to increase the ways in which students get meaningful feedback on their work. Put simply, our job as teachers is not to use our mental and creative energy grading papers. Our job is to create ways for students to see the impact of their work at multiple stages in its development and to design ways to articulate to students the kind of quality work that is expected. This means being a sleuth of sorts, constantly looking at our students’ writing and finding examples of quality that we can show back to the class. These models of quality work provide a platform for developing a shared sense of what quality writing looks and sounds like. And, of course, this modeling of quality goes beyond writing. Students should understand what a quality discussion sounds like. We need to provide models of what a quality reflection looks like, for example. Basically, any form of work that is going to be expected needs to have models of quality so that students have a sense of the moves they need to make to produce something good. This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to have these models ahead of time. Sometimes that is a good thing, but it can be just as powerful to pose the challenge of a particular kind of writing, let students take on the challenge, and then look for models of quality writing in the way they approached the challenge. A sense of quality writing is developed over time. It evolves as students practice. The notion that showing students “perfect” writing or other forms of work in the beginning of the process of learning something and expecting students’ understanding of what quality is to come from that initial example is a fallacy. An enduring sense of quality develops by continually looking at models of quality, developing a quality language around them, experimenting in the form of work, and comparing one’s own work to the model of quality. The process is cyclical, mindful, intentional, and ongoing. Focusing on the grading of work takes away from the time to explore what great work looks, sounds, and feels like with our students.
In a writing-based classroom, there are a few carefully chosen times when work is graded in the form of a summative assessment. Limiting grading to a few select products is important because it not only more closely mirrors the way we are evaluated in the “real” world, it is also a proactive way of addressing the ridiculous student loads that teachers have, particularly in middle and high school. In my work, I see a correlation between student load and a teacher resorting to pedagogical choices that are not in the best interest of the students or the teacher, not surprising since it feels easier to do what has been done before. But these uni-directional, static forms of evaluation are not faster or easier, really. And they define a teacher’s work in a narrow and limited way. The narrowness can be stultifying and ultimately contribute to burnout. Instead, a feedback stance, with intentional moments of grading that are both process and product oriented, expands a teacher’s role and perhaps more importantly expands who should be providing feedback on the work (teacher, students, self). This means that the burden of providing the feedback, and maybe even the grading, does not only rest on the shoulders of the teacher. It rests on the class as a whole. This orientation better prepares students for being able to interpret and apply feedback and more honestly assess their own work. It helps to avoid a fixed mindset and learned helplessness which are often the partner of excessive grading environments. In terms of the teacher, a feedback approach, opens up time to live the work alongside the students, making for a more collaborative, responsive, and spontaneous work relationship.
Education is very good at making things unnecessarily complicated. When it comes to designing writing environments with our students, we can keep it really simple. Answer this question: what does it look, sound, and feel like to be a writer out in the world? The answer to that question should guide everything that we do.