Monday, June 3, 2013

Setting Up Middle School Writers for Success

For years, rubrics bothered the hell out of me.

I didn't understand them. I admit it--I was silent and went about my business nailing students for every mistake I could find on an essay according to the PA Writing Rubric key areas: Focus, Content, Style, Organization, and Mechanics.

Oh, student essays were a blood bath. And I garnered a reputation as a tough grader; therefore, I must be teaching these kids how to write well. The thing is, I never really set my students up for success when it came to writing. I would float out an assignment and sit and wait in judgment. Of course, some kids could write well--but for many, receiving a scored essay from me was a bit gut-wrenching.

And the same kids flourished (those who could already write mistake-free) and the same kids floundered (those who had no idea what to expect and caught my red pen like schrapnel).

Exposure to the National Writing Project, and immersion in reading some of the great educators, writers, and thinkers of today has given me reason to retrace my steps and rebuild my approach to teaching writing and assessing writing.

For one, my kids read more. They read more of their own choosing. And I'd rather not score an essay at all, but the reality is, in this world, scores are expected.

So back to my point about scoring essays and the change I made...

One way I rethought the writing rubric was to adapt the Collins Writing method.  I use more modified Type 3 models (Focus Correction Areas) with my writers--they serve as their rubrics.

Painting by Oliver Ray
I'll teach a few writing concepts, quiz the students on them and then place concepts into a Type 3 rubric. Writing concepts (grammar, mechanics, style, content, et al.) will reoccur on the rubrics over multiple essays throughout the year. At the bottom I'll leave some blank space for a personalized area of focus...something more like a Focus Correction Area. Students can choose this on their own, but I often touch base and confer with them on this point.

It is becomes a great tool if you have students with IEPs that carry spelling goals, etc.

This structured rubric gives the young writer something to try to develop and use correctly in an essay. I ask students to both highlight and mark one example of its usage so that I know that they know what they did. (This becomes something I chase my 13 and 14 year-old students to do all year long.) I am always returning essays and asking for students to highlight and mark what they used.

I only "score" the components on the rubric and each component is worth 5% out of a 100%.

If I ask for 5 components and a student gets all incorrect, they still receive a 75% which I rationalize as covering the production of their essay as well as honoring the good that is in it. If all 5 components are correct then they receive 100% for that essay.

In either case, this frees up conferring time to be about the writing and not the score. Even if a student gets all 5 components incorrect, I do not have to justify the score. It also provides something for us to work on in class, after class, online, etc. Students walk away knowing what they need to improve in addition to what they did well.

After scoring an essay (very quickly with this method) I spend the bulk of my time placing post-its on their essays. The post-its contain my observations and are always positive and encouraging.

I used to hammer students on every little error, but always had a difficult time ascertaining a score. Even the standard PA Writing Rubric based on a -1, 2, 3, 4 system does not help a teacher transfer that into a score. Is a 3 a B? How do you score a 3 in Focus, a 3 in Content, a 2 in Style, and a 4 in Conventions? Is that a B?

Isn't that arbitrary?

My old method of editing for every mistake also took me away from reading the essay as a reader. Literally, I was an editor and not a reader.

And so much of what we do is try to teach our kids to write for an audience, write for a reader. But who was I kidding? I can step back now and see that in reality kids were learning to write for their editor--me.

While my current method of scoring and providing feedback may not be perfect, it has done something that I can document--it has cleared the path for conferring about writing. It has cleared the path for me to teach the writer and not the writing. It has cleared the path for adolescents to not be intimidated by writing. And it has cleared the path for adolescents to understand exactly what is assessed.

But best of all, it has cleared the path for my young writers to see me as a mentor and not a scorer as they learn to write about what matters to them and own their content.

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