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Nothing new, right? These exercises are extremely valuable for the conversation alone. It is one way to draw colleagues into comfortable conversations about writing. By comfortable, I mean everyone is happy to offer an opinion about student writing. Often, teachers come at it from differing angles. At times, teachers focus on the mistakes in the writing. Regrettably, we can grind kids' noses in the elements needing correction.
It is more challenging to find colleagues willing to write and/or share their own writing. So, until the day when the unicorns deliver us to that end of the rainbow, we can settle on discussing the writing of children.
In this specific case, the teacher and trainer (both of whom write) scored the student work at a 5 or a 6 in one specific category. The teacher's colleagues (including an administrator) scored the writing sample at a 3. None are writers.
A few universally accepted truths bubbled up as I listened to my writing project colleagues discuss the situation:
- Writing is becoming a stronger emphasis in schools.
- All stakeholders in schools want consistent experiences for students.
- Consistent assessment is a challenge.
I walked away from our continuity session chewing on the conversation. More truths surfaced, but these are not universally acknowledged by the actions of enough teachers:
- Teachers who do write understand writing, and the rubrics for writing, differently.
- Teachers who do write can identify the moves that young writers are attempting (successful and unsuccessful) and see these moves as progressive and ongoing.
- Teachers who do not write tend to interpret writer's moves as outcomes, as final evidence, as endpoints.
- Teachers who do not write tend to match the evidence in the writing to the surface meaning of the imperfect language on the rubric.
I struggled with understanding the language on rubrics for a couple of reasons.
First, writing a rubric is brutal. We tend to overwrite them to the extent that our kids have no idea what they mean...let alone the adults. We perseverate over the specific words. We try for accuracy. And we get it...so well that when considered from a distance we end up asking ourselves, what the hell does proficient mean? what is the difference between effectively supports and sufficiently supports?
Can you imagine a room full of non-writers trying to ascertain how to explicate those concepts for our students? Wouldn't we be better served by actually doing what we ask our kids to do? Wouldn't we be better served by being writers? Writers understand writing. Scorers think they understand rubrics.
[setting soapbox aside]
Second, I misinterpreted many rubrics because I did not write. I was a scorekeeper. I took on the roll of torchbearer of the state rubric, holding it high, jogging it through the community, through the halls, and into my classroom where I tacked it proudly on the wall like a Presidential portrait...because I was supposed to. Because this was the standard of good writing. Not because I understood it. I treated the teaching of writing (to borrow a metaphor I heard on Friday...thank you, Bill!) as if I were spoon feeding children their castor oil: You will be good writing citizens. The state knows all. Just follow the rubric and you too can find a life of proficient writing. I'm only doing this because it is good for you! You need to learn to be better! Look to the poster! Look to the rubric.
Please do not be offended if you interpret this as being directed at you. I truly am writing about me. My experience. And the connections I made and internalized yesterday in a roomful of teachers (from all over several counties) who are teachers who write.
By the way, we all saw the child's writing in question as a 5 or a 6. We shared no stake in it or that school or staff. But we do share a common lens--the lens of being writers.
I can't make an impassioned plea to schools hard enough. If writing is to be emphasized, if we truly want consistency, if we want to be better at assessing writing, then become teachers who write. There is no magic pill or no magic rubric.
The real magic is in writing.