Power of Tangible, Visible Goals: So Much More Than a Grade

Writing shows who we are, what we know, how we think, and what we want. Writing is learning about ourselves and putting it out for the world to see. Writing is a brave act.

I have the privilege to teach my students writing. I get to see into their hearts and minds. Their writing shows their passions and their worries, their triumphs and failures.

Now think grades, specifically evaluating writing for a grade. As I celebrate what my students do and look to what they need to do next, the concept of a grade makes me — uncomfortable. What does that do for a writer? How does this grow a writer, a learner, a thinker?  On the other hand, we crave feedback. Parents want to know how their child is doing and students want to know how they did. And yes, we need assessment and standards to form this feedback fairly and consistently. The challenge is doing this in a way that develops writers, celebrating their brave act of putting themselves out there for all to see. This requires so much more than a grade.

Assessment should be a living document that student  and teacher can take and grow from.  Thanks to the work of Lucy Calkins and Teachers College Reading Writing Project’s Units of Study, we now have common core standards-based checklists by grade level.  This kid- and teacher- friendly tool sets forth a continuum with clear expectations and next steps, one that can be embraced by an entire school community providing a clear “pathway” to develop writers.

What follows is work of a student who is a passionate writer, writes on her own all the time. She is an English language learner and has learning disabilities that show up in her writing.

One day my mom told me lets go to the mall okay so I told my mom can I bring phone  she said no but mom I thought you said I could use it well I change my mind mom said I don’t  want to listen to her so I hide it in my sister bag I told her to not tell mom why she said because mom doesn’t  want me to bring it  well she said fine I was so happy so I could show off my phone so  we went to the mall  when we went to Hollister it was so.Dark  so I told my sister  to give me  it please so she give it to me I was so happy everyone told me I like your phone I said.Thanks  a lot of strangers said I love it I said …thanks   so I was using it my mom looked at me she was like what was that nothing she told me  give me your hands I left  it right  there   I was looking to find my phone  but it was all dark so I felt like crying  I said to my mind stop why did I I had to bring it just to show off  UGGG  I stomp my I feet NO NO well I learned so much to never show off and always say the truth to your mom even the worst ones.

Knowing this writer and her passion for writing, it is so important to approach her acknowledging all she has done well. Using the TCRWP narrative checklist we can name her strengths. She’s told a story that had tension and a lesson learned. She elaborated with her thoughts, feelings, dialogue and action. She  provided some craft elements, specifically sensory details — Hollister so Dark — that were a crucial to her story. The criteria of craft, elaboration, and story are all elements this student wrote toward using the checklist. But it is also so important not to stop there.  A crucial part of writing is writing so others can understand your thoughts. Using the checklist,  we look to aspects she has not met such as structure and language conventions. Now, she has concrete feedback and clear next steps for her work. She knows where she sits on the continuum. She knows where she needs to work.  We  have clear goals to work toward. It is tangible, visible — so much more than a grade.IMG_1063

Treadmills are Like Reading Logs

I realized some things as I ran today. Running is solitary. I’m all alone, in my head.  As I run I’m composing, revising, rethinking. Sometimes by the end of a run, I’ve got a great idea. Sometimes I follow through on that idea. But mostly I don’t.

Writing pushes me think an idea through and to next steps. During my run I was thinking of the recent post on Teaching to the Core : “One of the biggest bang-for-your-buck Common Core standards is W.CCR.10, which basically says, ‘Write frequently for many reasons.’ “ So true for me personally. Writing has provided the biggest bang for my learning as a teacher.  I’ve revised, edited and most importantly published them, for someone to read. This process makes it so much bigger than just those musings I had in my head. Through the process of writing, my ideas are better and the process of making them public pushes me to live up to those words.   

Running today I thought about goal setting. I injured my ankle in May and couldn’t run for a month. I slowly and carefully started running again. It was a struggle because of the injury. I carefully managed and measured my running by time and distance on a treadmill. That way I  gradually got stronger as I set goals for myself. I started running again in June at 5 minutes/10 minute pace. Today I ran 4.6 miles in 39 minutes. I was a fragile, injured runner, but by setting goals and gradually increasing, I’m much stronger.

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This leads me to my struggle with reading logs. I know on many levels logs do not speak the truth about a reader, they drive parents crazy, and many students have a very difficult time keeping track of them. I want to abandon the paper lunacy of logging in logging out, tracking, and incentivizing. So I’ve been leaning strongly toward no logs. Requiring one book a week, 40 books during the school year, and public responses to reading as measures of student accountability. But, there is one thing missing from this scenario:  goal setting.

I asked my students about the possibility of giving up logs for a different way of measuring our reading. They  were uncomfortable with letting logs go. Many saw it as a way of showing the teacher they are reading. Most said they have been unsuccessful keeping up with them in the past, but promised that this year would be better!  I had them write about it and one-third felt that reading logs helped them by keeping them on track “so I could see if I read or not.” Another said it was “like a teacher that pushed me.” These responses came from fragile readers. The strong were willing to give it up. Makes me think of myself as a fragile runner. I needed that treadmill because it helped me set goals and tracked my progress. When I was strong, I hated the treadmill because it constrained me.

My students spoke.  I need to create a system that accommodates these readers: those who need to measure their reading, visually. Something that builds them up to become stronger readers. Perhaps another thing for those who are constrained by logs. I’m thinking of a lined post it, that moves through the book as a book mark and allows students to measure or track their reading. When finished with the book the post it becomes a part of their reading portfolio.   I’ll run this idea by them tomorrow. We’ll test it out.

Any ideas about measuring reading? Please post a thought.