Friday, July 15, 2011

Leaving the Writer Intact

Assessment is never far from the mind of the writing teacher. We have our students write and write and write Most of the time we can give this writing the freedom to go nowhere. We can conference with our students, ask questions, suggest and not mandate, or encourage experiments that the young writer doesn't know they have permission to try. But sooner or later, we're faced with a piece of writing that must be reduced to a score or measured against the criteria of a rubric. This is serious ethical work. If writing is power, then evaluating that writing is more powerful still. If writing is, to paraphrase Donald Graves, the attempt of a student to claim some turf, then writing teachers have the ability to reduce that turf to dust with a few words or slashes of a brightly colored pen. I don't have all the answers to questions of writing assessment in the primary grades and I never will. But Regie Routman's exhortation to respond to student writing in ways that "leave the writer intact" seems to be a good starting point. I ask myself four main questions when encountering a piece of student writing:

  • Do I want this writer to keep writing?
The answer to this question is always yes and has implications for response. The moment my criticism punctures a piece the writer holds dear, the closer I am to creating a non-writer. The piece may not adhere to my adult standards. I may be frustrated with endless childhood obsessions around Star Wars, princesses, or the best friend who, unbeknownst to the young writer, really isn't such a good friend after all. The safety of repetitive sentence structure may start to grate. But I must honor what the student knows, highlight what they've done well, and shine some light on where they might go. My favorite question to ask a first grade writer is "And then what happened?" 

  • Do I want this writer to stop writing?
The answer to this question is always no and carries the same set of implications as above, but I'm more explicit here. "I want you to tell stories for the rest of your life" or "I can't wait to read more" are two more favorites. In short: never stop writing.

  • Have I left the writer intact?
Taking this stance doesn't mean telling every child their writing is fantastic, but comes with the acknowledgement that the writer may attach to a piece feelings of pride, significance, and accomplishment that the reader-evaluator can never know. To evaluate writing is to evaluate being. Our words matter here. To leave a whole writer safely at their seat as I move on to my next conference, I stress my inability to understand based on gaps in my knowledge and enlist the writer's help. "You obviously know way more about this than I do. Can you explain to me what this part means?" Re-framing the piece as unclear to me is different than telling the young writer they're not being clear. This keeps me from lapsing into good/bad thinking and from labeling the piece and its author as such.

  • May I write on your paper?
I stopped writing on students' pieces several years ago and only engage in this practice a few times each year. When permanently left behind in the ink of my teacher pen, my adult expectations of spelling, punctuation, and grammar become the whole of writing to some students. The writing stars to lose its child-like simplicity, vitality, and truth. The page is unnecessarily cluttered. If I have to mark a paper as our annual common assessments require, I tell the writer what I'm doing and why I'm doing it. If I can, I leave my comments behind on a sticky note or the back of the paper. This way, my suggestions can be acted upon and then removed or quietly buried with a return flip to the front of the page. I can't claim this writing. Writing isn't something that we assign and therefore own. Writing is thinking that a student should be able to volunteer without fear of having it defaced in the name of correctness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Keep Your Heart in Yourself

It's rare that an elementary class ends the year with the same roster of students that walked through the door in September.  So, several weeks ago it wasn't a surprise when we had to wish a friend farewell. He wasn't going far - just moving closer to his mother's job. But the kids knew they would probably never see him again. They all  sat down and wrote to a prompt about what made their friend special. They used pictures, words, sentences, markers. The pages soon filled with rainbows and stick figures holding hands. We assembled the writing into a keepsake book to give to our friend. Most of it was pretty common first grade stuff, until one boy wrote a line that we read over and over. My co-teacher posted it on the board. Before I found NWP, I might have corrected this writing to make it adhere to my adult standards. But I didn't. I wrote it on a strip of paper and hung it near my desk - the same desk where I sat in the dark and cried when I learned that NWP's funding had been cut. I still read it every morning when I come in to work. He took all the weathered phrases about being true to yourself and recast them as a child's poetic wisdom. Near the end of his letter, leaving his friend with something to remember, he wrote:  "Keep your heart in yourself."

These are trying times for teachers. For those of us who have been lucky to find a community as vibrant as our local writing project site, things have gotten a bit tougher lately. The uncertainty surrounding NWP's continued funding has proven to me that we must have a vocabulary for just what it is that a writing project site does. What is our work? How do we talk about it? And why is it important? We can start these conversations by examining our core - by keeping our hearts in ourselves.

We write. Attend any NWP-connected event and you'll find teachers writing. Sometimes there's a prompt to spark or frame our thinking for the day. The prompt usually gets us to think about our teaching or the work of our site, though sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes this writing is read aloud, and sometimes it isn't. And a lot of the time, this writing goes nowhere. But it matters - to us and our students. We believe that writing is foundational to student learning. We know that maintaining any sort of credibility as writing teachers demands that we write. What matters less is the production of text and more the invisible lines of connection and inquiry that develop in our minds. Something happens when we write. And something better happens when we all write together in a not-so-silent room of keyboard clicks and scratching pens. We have to keep writing. Always.

We inquire. We raise and pursue our own questions about writing, literacy, and technology. We start with our own teaching experience and go from there. We might stand on the shoulders of other "expert" thinkers, but over time we realize the true experts are our NWP colleagues. We'll read books, articles, blogs, and other pieces written from far away. But we reserve the right to hold any scholar's work up as an object of inquiry and not the final, revered say on a given topic. We know that theory and practice must be in constant dialogue and that it's ok to say "Well, this is how that might look in our classroom."

We learn from each other. Teachers teaching teachers. That's one of my favorite NWP taglines. This feels strange at first, especially if you're used to cramming into a hotel conference room to hear the latest expert opine on all the foolproof ways to fix our students. These experts have their place and certainly make a lot of money, but ideas in a local context never unfold as presented in neat, sequential, animated clicks during the workshop Power Point. An elementary teacher might use a turn of phrase that helps a high school teacher see a lesson as if for the first time. Two teachers might realize that they teach at different levels or in different disciplines, but struggle to address the same critical issues of writing instruction. We solve problems together to improve student learning. Teachers need time and space to do this. It looks simple. It's not.

We go public with practice. We know that isolation dulls our teaching senses. We break from the confinement and politics of our own schools to seek out other teachers from across the region, state, and nation. We share our lessons and best thinking. We partner with other sites to see what's going on over here and over there. We play around with ideas in context, hold on to the ones that meet our needs, and reject the ones that don't. Either way, nobody minds if you take one of their ideas for a spin. We provide in-service, present at conferences, and write articles to say that teacher knowledge is real, valuable, and worthy of placement at the center of any conversation around the improvement of teaching and learning. We understand that people who spend all day among schoolchildren know a thing or two about them. This is the root of true reform.

This is who we are and what we value. And I've certainly left some gaps that others can fill in. Each year, our federal government puts forth its values in the form of a budget. Based on current dollar amounts, one might say we value assessment and measurement a whole lot more than teaching and learning. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's still time to do the right thing. We write. We inquire. We learn from each other. We go public with practice. We'll hold on to these things. Because when everything that's familiar is cast into doubt, you have no choice but to keep your heart in yourself.

Write on.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

On the NWP

I joined the Capital District Writing Project in the summer of 2006. I grew curious after speaking to a CDWP member and reading about the summer institute in a flyer from our local teacher center. A summer spent writing and thinking alongside other teachers seemed like a gift. I thought about all the news-y faculty meetings, the too-short lunches and planning periods, and the disconnected professional development days that kept me from learning from other teachers and fostered a dull sense of intellectual homelessness. I applied and was accepted. I found a home. And my life has never been the same.

My teacher demonstration lesson came up early on the summer schedule. I was scared. What could I, a kindergarten teacher, share about writing instruction that a high school teacher might find valuable? I looked out at the kind faces sitting around the summer institute table. They were the intellectual heavyweights, mostly upper-level English teachers. I colored and tied shoes. The approximations I accepted as student writing were sure to elicit polite smiles and nods, but would never find their way into more serious classrooms. I was wrong.

I presented the lesson, which I titled "Writing as Noticing." The lesson invites young writers to take a walk with an empty bag, notice and collect what small artifacts they encounter while walking, and use this collection as the basis for imaginative writing. In exploring and describing the contents of their bags, the young writers have a chance to notice not only what the objects are, but what they could be. It is a chance to put something into the world that wasn't there before. During the post-lesson conversation, other teachers started talking about what this lesson might look like in their own classrooms. They saw this small contribution to our collective inquiry as valuable. Several had plans to lead their older students on a walk, clutching their own bags, and saving small bits of noticing to spark what might be possible. My knowledge and expertise had been honored in a way they had never been before. I wanted to bring that sense of respect to my students and my colleagues.

Over time, I found a whole philosophy of teaching in that noticing bag. To notice, reflect, and act as an agent of imagination and possibility are essential dispositions that NWP has helped me impart on my students and integrate into my stance as a writer and teacher-leader. They are critical not only to deep learning and student success, but to the very definition of what we call "an education" - now or at any moment.

We can name this educational moment many things: curious, strange, data-driven, or assessment-based. Above all, it is a moment of change and uncertainty that demands writing and inquiry. We don't need a rigid checklist that defines the perfect construct of "teacher effectiveness." We don't need a neat, shiny box that contains another program promising to meet all our students' needs. We don't need a starkly-lined chart of test scores that confuse assessment to inform with assessment to sort, label, and sanction. Those things will all fade away and cease to reach our students-if they ever did at all. No, what this moment demands is constant, hopeful, collaborative inquiry rooted in writing and infused with the truth that teachers teaching teachers ultimately leads to better learning for our children.

The pace of  technological, social, and economic change has grown too rapid to sell our students the snake oil of easy, comforting, and permanent answers. We need a network that creates a safe space for that acknowledgement. We need NWP. Writing ability is correlated to achievement in all other subjects. We need a network that invests in that reality. We need NWP.  The teaching profession is growing more complex, results-oriented, and driven by accountability. We need a network that provides opportunities for teacher renewal amidst all of these demands. We need NWP. The future is not a prize to be won, but a story of justice, peace, and opportunity to be written. We need a network where such writing matters. We need NWP.

Write on.