Ever since I first received my copy of the middle school Units of Study in Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing , this book has been in my book bag and on my desk, read and re-read, marked up and festooned with post it notes for quick reference :
Why? Because once our writing year begins to unfold and become “real” with our first foray into personal narratives, a good part of my writing teacher brain becomes consumed with how to move my kids up the ladder of their writing lives. I still want to inspire them with beautifully written mentor texts and strategically planned mini lessons, but I also want to make sure that I am as intentional and systematic about all we do in this phase of writing workshop so that my students become better writers, who can (in the words of the U of S) “share ownership of their progress”. So, much as I appreciated the learning progressions, rubrics and writing exemplars included in this book, the part that I was most excited about was…the student checklist!
Here’s how the checklists are described in the Units of Study:
… checklists can be used for more than simply keeping track of whether a task has been done or not; they can also be used to monitor progress toward a bigger goal. By using checklists, students in a writing workshop can review their work systematically, checking to make sure they have met certain goals in each piece of their writing. And, if they fall short of meeting their goals, a good checklist can guide them in the right direction toward meeting that goal in their next revision – and in their future writing.
I loved the idea of involving my students in the process of evaluating their own work. We have writing rubrics, of course, but these were (quite frankly) quite daunting for my students: all the many columns and skill sets inherent in building a meaningful rubric made for a complicated looking evaluation tool for students to use. I would hand these out, and my kids’ eyes would glaze over – too much “stuff” to focus on, take in, and figure out. The checklists, however, are a distilled and simplified version of those rubrics. They are kid friendly, short, and key in on critical elements of writing. They are eminently do able , which means that they will be used. Score! Here’s what the checklist process looked like in my sixth grade classroom.
- I adapted the Personal Narrative checklist in the Units of Study and made it more user friendly with graphics ( I believe that these exist in the CD that goes along with the series, but I wanted to personalize our checklist and create my own):
- We “unpacked” the checklist, marking it up and analyzing the skills it targeted, and the components it encompassed. This is, I think, the key to using it successfully with students. We spent a lot of time discussing the relevance of each component and talking through what this would look like and sound like :
- Then we worked in pairs to examine a personal narrative from some years ago, and used the checklist to see where this writer placed. I loved listening to my kids as they discussed this and that element, and tried to figure out what this writing piece had achieved and still needed. Here, again, it was important to listen in and direct/redirect conversation so that the focus was always the writing and what to look for:
2. A whole class discussion fleshed out misconceptions and allowed for further clarification.
3.Finally, my kids turned to their own writing pieces, their first revision personal narratives, and wrestled with the hard part: evaluating their own writing in a clear-eyed, checklist driven manner. This was our first run through, and I know it will take consistent guided practice for my students to learn how to use the checklist to annotate their writing for revision :
It was interesting to see this process play out in my classroom. All the work we had done to understand the elements of the checklists gave my students a sense of agency in their self evaluation. Because we were still in the revision process, my students felt motivated to be honest about where they were in their writing, and what parts they could work towards improving. Best of all, they had concrete goals to strive towards: clearer transitions, or endings that connect better to the “so what?” of the narrative, for instance. We have just begun to use writing checklists in Room 202, and we know that much work remains to be done. But, I am so glad that we have taken this first step.
As one of my kids said as she was tucking away her checklist, “Now I know how to have a writing conference by myself.”
I teach Writing Workshop, Language Arts and Social Studies to sixth graders at a middle school in suburban New Jersey. This blog is my attempt to capture all the "stuff" that goes into my teaching life - the planning, the dreaming, the reading, the preparing, the hoping and (above all) the kids.
Please note that the content of this blog is my own. It does not reflect the opinions of my employer.