GUEST BLOG POST: Assessment + Writing = Closure

For the nearly 20 years, Lisa Dewey Wells has taught early childhood (three-year-olds through third grade) at independent schools in Massachusetts, New York and Maryland, including the past 12 years at St. Anne’s School of Annapolis.  Her passion for teaching includes a commitment to knowing each learner as an individual and creating a classroom community where the social curriculum is interwoven with the academic fabric.  Lisa holds her M.Ed. from Lesley University and has additional training from the Gesell Institute and Gurian Institute.  She is a certified Responsive Classroom Teacher Leader through the Northeast Foundation for Children, which gives her the privilege of mentoring colleagues and collaborating with other teacher leaders who use the Responsive Classroom approach.   In addition to presenting to local and regional conferences on social curriculum, inquiry based learning, and digital story telling, Lisa is a contributing editor on Stage of Life and writes about child development and learning on her blog, Wonder of Children.   She can be reached at wonderofchildren@gmail.com or on the Wonder of Children page on Facebook.

Tempus Fugit.

That’s what my Latin teacher said every day for four years. Now I’m the one uttering that ancient phrase almost every day.  How is it mid-May? We have less than 20 school days left. We’ve had a great year together in third grade, but now we’re officially in the letting-go-stage.  But there’s still so much to do, right? My shoulders tighten as I type the words.

In a rigorous, inquiry-based, literary classroom, on any given day, there’s always more to do. I’m a glass half-full kind of person when it comes to kids and their learning; but personally, I lean towards half-empty.  When it comes time to reflect on the year and move towards closure, I’m tough on myself.  It’s usually discordance that pushes me to a better place of growth and acceptance.  That’s what refills my glass so I can see it is not just half-full, but nearly overflowing.

I’ve been muddling through this process and took a walk down memory lane to review the year, our assessments and our writing.  Writing about our learning has been the driver behind both our assessments and our growth this year. There’s still more to do in the last few weeks, but we’ve done so much writing and growing throughout the year that it’s got me over the half-full phase!

Every Day Assessments

As I prepared myself and my third graders to reflect on their year of learning, I turned toward the assessments I use every day.  These assessments reflect a balance of objective and subjective tools, including running records, writing and research rubrics, anecdotes, photo documentation, and dictation of what’s said and observed. Children and teachers take part in the process and in fact, children reflect on their learning at many junctures during the school year.  This is done mostly through rubrics and check sheets, but as third grade progresses, they are doing more anecdotal writing about their work and goals.

In early winter, we began the arduous process of assembling portfolios for student-led conferences.  Each week, we collected work samples that show something hard or challenging, something that shows effort, or a piece that shows how and what we worked onto achieve a specific goal. Children respond to their feelings and perceptions of their skills and attitudes about writing, reading, math and social skills. When we’re finished, we rehearse and invite parents to come in and listen to the child’s own reflection on their learning to date.  It’s an amazing process that has always amazed both me and the families.

Hopes and Dreams and Goals

The year opens with read alouds and discussion of hopes and dreams, and follows many of the routines of the Responsive Classroom’s first six weeks.  By the middle of third grade, learners are well-versed in process since the vast majority have done this for two or more years.  This particular class is one I know well, having had them as first graders, and then watching them continue to grow in second grade.  It felt like a natural time to step up the mid-year review of hopes to include something new.  I read the book Dream: A Tale of Wonder, Wishes and Wisdom by Susan Bosak (see the Legacy Project listed under resources) and modeled how to determine a specific academic goals a learner might have for him/herself. This included the steps toward accomplishment, people who would support and help you and how you’d know you had achieved that dream.  I drew from the self-reflection processes many professional coaches use with business clients; by drafting and revising their thoughts, third graders were able to identify authentic goals for themselves and felt they really could accomplish them.   As a community, we basked in the pride we felt for this hard work.  I often heard kids commenting on their progress toward their goal or on someone else’s progress. Even my coaching friends were impressed with the determination and precise the children exhibited during the process!

Learning from their Writing

As I reflected on their individual written goals, patterns emerged.  Nearly one third focused on the mechanic of writing (i.e. spelling, neatness or cursive).  One third identified writing and demonstrating competence in our research through written expression.  I was a bit surprised.   With so much emphasis on reading, asking questions, and sharing ideas verbally in our classroom, was I taking writing for granted?  We write every day.  They view themselves as writers. Our entire program emphasizes writing for authentic purposes, beginning in early childhood.  Kids are constantly writing for real purposes, to share ideas, to show their imagination, to express their feelings and ideas about life and learning.  I had mini-goals for each writer. My glass felt a bit depleted as I wondered why this surprised me.

What I didn’t get that writing was on their minds; I hadn’t expected to hear that my children were so much more eager to write.  Becoming better was such a sign of their overall development.  Chip Wood refers to nines as a year of “intellectual stretching” and a time when they begin to see they have the “power and responsibility for change.” This writing assignment showed my kids the later as just as importantly, reminded me that as they hit their stride as a nine, they are maturing cognitively and taking their work with a greater sense of purpose.

Next Steps

Spring arrived and I began to consider how I would maximize our time to balance the myriad of demand and pay special attention to these individual goals. We had authentic, research-based writing to do (which would allow for these goals to be addressed) and still utilize the purist approach to writing workshop throughout units of study?  There wasn’t that much time in the day.  Conversations with colleagues led a needed reminder to balance.  If we dug deep into a research topic (i.e. aspects of African culture), spending time purposefully taking notes, analyzing research and writing nonfiction that revealed our learning and connections.  Some wrote in cursive, some typed from drafts, some continued to write in tiny print.  Students shared orally, dramatically and through visual arts – all of which were based off their writing.  Other weeks, we read about topics, but focused our writing on developing seed ideas and fictional stories.  It was a constant juggle and debate in my head, often leaving me feeling as if I had robed Peter to pay Paul in writing workshop.   I wasn’t sure I had chosen the right path, but the bottom line was that we were writing every day, often more than twice a day.

May arrived with the realization that the last six weeks were upon us. After nearly twenty years of teaching, I don’t’ think I’ve ever felt completely ready to end the year. Does anyone?

I’ve looked through portfolios again. I’ve looked at the notes in my own journal and the kids’ writing notebooks. I’m reading final drafts of fictional stories and the documentation children help write to accompany work and photos on our walls. Like many things in life, it’s often hard to really appreciate the growth over time when it stares you in the face every day.

Is there more I could have done? Probably. Did we accomplish our goals? Sure thing. Here’s a brief then and now snapshot, culled from my journal, portfolios and photos:

I’m working on my own assessments to share with families in spring trimester reports. I typically devote time to class reflections and individual reflection that result in memory books.  Unlike many of the Responsive Classroom routines and rituals that are comfortably set in place at each grade level, I’m not certain that doing another memory book with this class is the best, or only, option this year.

These digital natives are increasingly comfortable keyboarding, using software, taking photos and synthesizing these images.  I’m considering a more democratic and 21st century approach to wrapping up our year that stretches our writing skills one more time. Rather than illustrate and write memory books, I’ll offer them a chance to capture our year in a documentary short (film).  Outlines and scripts will need to be prepared. We’ll have to schedule and shoot scenes to highlight the year and then piece those images together.   This tech-y approach might be just the ticket to sustain our interest in learning, celebrating our community and preserving our part in the school’s history and identity as we leave an easily accessible legacy to next 3rd grade.

For additional resources on the Last Six Weeks of School, see: