On paper, writer’s workshop is a great idea. Students have voice and choice. They work at their own pace, developing the skills they need as individuals. They engage in the process and in the end become much better writers. It all sounds so wonderful, but…is it a grading nightmare? Will you be buried under paper if you adapt this approach?
Well, it depends. It depends on whether you believe you have to mark every-thing the students do. I don’t. And I also think that the only way a teacher can survive this and get some sleep is to adopt an attitude and approach that focuses on skill building and process, rather than pumping out assignments and final grades.
Let me explain. Many of us, both teachers and students, are used to the cycle of the writing assignment: the teacher assigns a piece of writing; then the students have a number of days to complete it before passing it in for a grade, getting it back with feedback…and possibly never looking at it again. Writer’s workshop puts the focus on the process: students are working on a variety of skills and genres with the end goal of becoming better writers–not just to get a grade. In fact, many pieces of writing may never even become “published”. That means that you do not grade everything they write.
The reality is, however, that we work with teenagers who often need a little motivation, and within a system that requires final grades. How can that mesh with a workshop approach? But how does it all work?
While there are many ways to assess a secondary writer’s workshop, I’ll share how it works for me.
1. Before you begin, you need to do some planning and organizing: Decide how many finished products you want to assess, and when you want them to be due. These might be assignments required by your curriculum, or ones that the students choose themselves. That’s a decision you need to make ahead of time. I ask that they pass something in for a grade every four weeks. If students choose their own work for a mark, give them some direction as to how you would like them to choose the pieces. Do you want a variety of genres? A selection that illustrates growth as a writer? Both? I’ll be giving my students the following:
Allowing students to select their own pieces for grading does not mean it’s a free-for-all, because after you decide what you want in the end, you need to plan and organize the all-important journey there.
2. Decide how you will use formative assessment for skill building. In my last post, I wrote about how I use backward design to plan the skill building I will do during writer’s workshop. Once I have that plan in place, I create some forms to track each student’s attainment of those skills. I keep these forms in a binder, organized alphabetically, by students’ last names. As I circulate during workshop and/or conference with students, I can check off whether or not a student has demonstrated a certain skill. I will also do so when I read their “published” copies.
In order to get your students working on things that won’t be graded, the first thing you need to do is some PR work. You need to show your students that doing the work and building their skills IS for a grade, because you will eventually be assessing several polished pieces of writing; if they don’t do the formative work along the way, they won’t do well on that final assessment. You need to believe in it so you can promote it too. And it needs to be a consistent and constant message: let’s all work together to get you where you need to go. You become a coach and your students are your team, working toward that big game: the final grade.
3. The most important part of this process is the conference. It is here where the real teaching and learning takes place. Instead of just giving feedback on a final copy, feedback that – let’s face it – rarely get acted upon, you will be instructing students one-on-one on what they need to do individually to improve. The conference does not have to be long. You might ask them to demonstrate their success with a certain skill or they may ask about something they are struggling with. Regardless, the quick check-in and follow up will hold them accountable for working on their writing.
Again, I use a series of forms to track this. I will also give them feedback on how prepared they were for their conferences, something that is quick and easy to do. I will give them several formative marks for this, and each term they will get a summative one as well.
So, to sum it all up, here’s what my assessment will look like:
1. Several formative marks – they will get one for their conferences, their skill building checklist, their writer’s notebook and their writing prompts.
2. Several summative marks – every for weeks they will pass in a polished copy. In the beginning of the semester they will have free choice, but later on, as I focus on more curriculum related things, they will have some required assignments.
3. A final summative assessment – they will pass in a variety of assignments that they believe best represents their growth as writers.
I hope that helps. As I’ve indicated before, this will be my first time totally diving into writer’s workshop. I’ll be tweaking a lot, and I’ll keep you posted on how it all goes!
All of the forms I referred to above are available in my Writer’s Workshop Bundle.
Would you like to get some support as you plan a workshop approach in your secondary classroom? Join my Facebook group, Secondary Reader’s & Writer’s Workshop Support. Send me your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or search this link.
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