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.

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