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.