Thursday, 18 December 2014

Inspiring All Students to Write

"What do you do about students who don't want to write?"

This time, the question came at a session where we were moderating writing samples, sharing a process designed to create a continuum.  It is a question that comes up almost every time I talk with teachers about writing. It is a question that crosses grade levels and gives pause to both beginning teachers and their more experienced colleagues. It is a question that can be phrased in many ways...but essentially asks the same thing.

"How do you handle it when kids just don't write?"

 A big part of my response falls under the category of describing quality. When students are shown what quality can look like, some of that reluctance disappears. Using the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983), writing moves from ME (the teacher) to WE (shared responsibility) to YOU (the student writing independently). I use two very powerful strategies for showing my students what writers do.

Teachers have always modelled. It was part of my repertoire as a beginning teacher and it is today. Changes have occurred over the years for me, some subtle and some less so, as I have refined my practice and reframed my thinking about what I am doing and why. Today, when I model writing, I choose to do so when we are learning a new genre or format, when I need to show students how a writer works, why a writer does something like revising, or what good writing looks like and sounds like.

In the past, I sometimes modelled because it was a step in the gradual release. I modelled because it was part of good teaching, because valued colleagues modelled, because I was a Grade 1 teacher... I modelled for many reasons that on their own, were not as authentic or intentional as they could have been. Now, I model for very particular, and more considered, purposes with a very specific audience in mind. And my models are stronger because of it. We know that student writers improve when they write for authentic purposes and audiences (Routman, 2005). This is also true for teacher-writers.

When I take the stance that I am modelling to show students what quality looks like, I see those models or demonstrations in a different way. I know they cannot be perfunctory...or the writing that follows will be perfunctory. I know they cannot be incomplete...or the writing that follows will be incomplete. I know they cannot be shallow and impersonal...or the writing that follows will be shallow and impersonal. What you model is what you get. What I understand now is that this applies not only to the writing itself, but also to topic selection, the commitment you feel toward the writing and your readers, and your attitude toward writing.

To inspire students to write, I need to find topics and formats that we can care about. We, because when I, the teacher, can write from my heart, the models ring true. Great writing topics, those that have a purpose and audience worth investing in, appeal to the teacher and the students, including the  reluctant writers. To hook those reluctant writer, I must be "really writing" as I write in front of them.

So, as we begin writing letters to someone who has been a big influence in our lives, I write to my mom.

With a Grade 3 class beginning to write book reviews, I write about a book in my own reading life that I want my book club to read because it will be more real for me, and therefore, for my students.

As teachers have always done, as I model, I talk. This talk shows the student writers the kind of thinking that a much more experienced writer does, a running commentary that adds to the description of quality. To make this description even more explicit and more beneficial to the reluctant or struggling writers, I ask students to tell me what they noticed me do. This list informs the criteria we co-construct later - yet another way to describe quality.

Shared Writing
Another time-honoured strategy, shared writing, has remained part of my practice over many years. It is an incredibly powerful way to release some of the responsibility to the students, to engage them in writing with you while maintaining control over the picture of quality writing being presented.  Viewing shared writing as another means of offering a picture of quality, I find I am able to make decisions in the moment about what to include, what to leave out, when to write a sentence myself, and what questions and comments to make.

My purpose is no longer muddled.

I know that it is NOT:
  • just writing down whatever the students say
  • making sure that it is fair and democratic with all voices heard in a list-like fashion
  • completing the second step in the gradual release of responsibility and getting quickly to the students writing
 I know that it IS:
  • to provide (for the writers in front of me) another description of quality
  • to release some of the responsibility to the student writers and to observe carefully what they do and say
  • to support all of the writers in the group

In this 'shared write' with a Grade 1 class, we were all going to be writing about something we are experts at. Our audience was other students in the school, and ourselves, as the plan was to produce a book for our classroom library and the school library. I had many goals in mind as I facilitated the writing, but the main purpose was for the children to see that we can be expert at some seemingly simple, yet oh-so-important things.

The students wrote about being experts in a delightful range of things:
  • listening
  • making people happy
  • being a little sister
  • building with Lego
  • holding hamsters
  • playing hopscotch
  • being a dog whisperer

When writers have a topic or reason for writing that they care about, some choice within that topic, and several clear descriptions of quality...they write.


Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.1983. The Instruction of Reading Comprehension, Contemporary 
       Educational Psychology, Vol. 8(3), pp. 317-344.

Routman, R. 2005. Writing Essentials:Raising Expectations and Results while Simplifying Teaching.
       Portsmouth, NH:Heinemann.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Identifying the Learning Destination for Student Writers

I have a confession to make. There was a time when the teaching of writing, not to mention the assessment of writing, overwhelmed me. It just seemed so BIG…I didn’t feel I had a handle on it at all. I knew I wanted a workshop approach. I knew that student choice was important to me and that quality literature would be integral to the workshop. Beyond that, I had more questions than answers. The big ideas of assessment for learning helped me figure it out, beginning with identifying the learning destination.

I realized that part of why writing felt so huge to me was that I really didn’t know my curriculum well enough. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted my students to know and understand, do, and be able to articulate. Reading the curriculum, in fact poring over it, was not enough. I needed to take it apart and put it back together in ways that made sense to me and served the needs of the students I was teaching.

Step 1
Looking at both the front matter and the specific learning outcomes, I copied all that pertained to writing. I did this electronically, cutting and pasting what I needed into a Word document. Then I printed it and cut out each outcome or statement as a strip.

Step 2
Next, I sorted and grouped the outcomes. I often do this by term or by six to eight week blocks within a term. Recently I used the Manitoba Grade 3 ELA curriculum with a group of teachers and modelled how I might sort it into three categories, one per term. This is a way to rebuild the curriculum, not the way. We decided to make the following categories:

  • Personal Writing
  • Writing to Respond
  • Writing Informational Text

Step 3
Looking at the charts will tell you that this is still too big to teach from or to communicate clearly to students. I chose one chart as the work of my next term and grouped the outcomes even further so that I could identify the learning destination, both for myself and my students.

• Various genres and forms have distinguishing features that appeal to various audiences and at varying times.
• Writers write for many purposes, audiences, and genres. Some details of the criteria for quality writing vary depending upon the genre/form and some are constant.
• Create original texts with a real audience and purpose to communicate understanding of various forms and techniques.

This description needs further refining so that I know what genres and forms we are going to use, but I am much closer to having a learning destination I can share with students. I also have the big ideas that we will be working on all year:

Students will:

Know: Their strengths and next steps as a writer.
Understand: Writers are continually self-assessing and improving their writing, making it  better for their reader.
Do: Work with various small and large groups to support each other as writers.

Now that I know where I am going and what I want my students to learn, I can make this target clear to them. I can think about the kinds of evidence we might collect; the conversations, observations, and products that will show me, and my students, how close they are to the target. Knowing the learning destination also makes it clear to me the kinds of samples my students will need to see, the criteria we will need to co-construct, and the modelling I will need to do. I can see the baseline data I will need to collect, the mini-lessons that will follow, the genres we might study, the conferences we might have, and the discussions we will engage in. But first, I must know the curriculum and make it my own.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


I decided to become a teacher at age five. I waffled a bit in Grade 11, primarily because a friend said, “Who decides what they are going to do with their life at five?!” but by Christmas of my Grade 12 year, I was focused once more. My initial decision was influenced by my mother, a Grade Two teacher who made teaching look like the most amazing career in the world. As an eighteen-year-old, it appealed because it seemed like a good match for my skill set: I loved reading, writing, learning, talking, entertaining, solving problems, and people. I also knew from observing my parents, both educators, that it would never be boring. And I was right. For more than thirty years I have been totally engaged in the career chosen by my five-year-old self.

Recently I’ve been reading the September issue of Educational Leadership, entitled Motivation Matters. Daniel Pink, the lead interview in the journal and author of Drive and To Sell is Human, might say that I found “a problem that I wanted to solve” (Scherer, p. 9) in my chosen career. Pink goes on to say that “satisfaction with one’s work often depends on hitching one’s desires to a cause larger than oneself.” (Pink & Azzam, p.16) Have you ever heard a better description of public education?

The journal definitely led to musings about the role of motivation in my career. As is usual, thinking about teaching took me to considering learning and learners. As I read my way through the journal, a pattern began to emerge. In article after article, my sticky notes all related to connections I was making to assessment for learning. Leafing through the magazine and stopping at the pink and orange stickies, you would find excerpts like these:

To secure real engagement, be clear on what you’re aiming for. (Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda, p. 20)

In the language of assessment, we would say that the learning destination must be clearly defined, both for ourselves as teachers and for the learners. We believe students can hit any target they know about and that stays still for them (Stiggins, 2004). Add to this success criteria clearly demonstrating what quality looks like and you have the beginnings of engagement.

A learning goal is, “I want to master algebra.” A performance goal is, “I want to get an A in algebra.” The research shows that reaching performance goals doesn’t necessarily mean that you have hit a learning goal. If people are single-mindedly focused on performance goals - and they achieve them - it doesn’t mean they’ve learned anything, improved their capabilities, or mastered something complex. The kid is less likely to retain what she learned to get the A, less likely to persist when the going gets tough, and less likely to understand why algebra is important in the first place. (Daniel Pink, p. 14)

This quote reminds us that students need to know not only where they are going, but why it is important. It is up to us as teachers to present the curriculum in ways that reveal the why, that reveal the big ideas that make the curriculum important and worth the effort of learning. Engagement is enhanced when we can see value in what we are doing.

The power of self-assessment and goal setting as motivators that drive learners forward is also reflected in this excerpt. Learners who understand what is being learned and what quality looks like, through the modeling of their teacher and the conversations about learning that happen in the classroom, are learners who can set goals for themselves and, even more importantly, are learners who own their own learning. This, for me, is engagement.

So it’s important that students have a clear picture of any academic goal and of where they are at any moment in relation to that goal. Only timely, descriptive feedback helps kids get that picture. (Rick Wormeli, p. 30)

In the past year I had the privilege of working alongside students and teachers, Kindergarten to Grade 8, in weeklong writing residencies. Part of this process was the giving of feedback, celebrating and describing in a public conference all of the things each writer was doing well. Listening to even the youngest writers begin to use the language I was using in describing their own and classmates’ writing showed the power of descriptive feedback. Watching self-conscious young adolescents smile as they received feedback describing all of the things they had done from our list of What Good Writers Do and then seeing them go back to their table to willingly revise - truly willingly - because they wanted to make it better for their readers was for me, engagement with a capital E.

If we want to obtain the most benefit from our close reading instruction, we’ll need to help students connect the dots. (Nancy Boyles, p. 37)

That is what teaching is all about - helping students connect the dots. Engagement is what happens for learners when the dots are connected. A clear learning destination, descriptions of quality, descriptive feedback, and the ability and opportunity to collect and describe your own evidence - these are strategies that help students connect the dots and make sense of what they are learning. And to own it.

That’s what I mean by fun and play - we’re actually talking about flow and engagement. The trouble with the word ‘play’ is that it seems to connote a lack of rigor. We want things to be rigorous, certainly in our education system. But it’s possible for things that seem, on the surface, to be play to be absolutely rigorous. (Daniel Pink, p. 16)

Boyles, N. 2014. Close Reading Without Tears. Educational Leadership Vol.  
    72 No 1, pp. 32-37.

Jackson, R. & Zmuda, A. 2014. 4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 19-24.

Pink, D. & Azzam, A. 2014. Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 12-17.

Scherer, M. Getting Motivated…to Motivate. 2014. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, p. 9.

Stiggins, R. 2004. Student-Involved Assessment for Learning. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wormeli, R. Motivating Young Adolescents. 2014. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 26-31.