A new Lucy Calkins resource just released by Heinemann, Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions Grades K-8, got me thinking. This book does not take the place of the Writing Pathways assessment books included in the Units of Study for Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing kits (Heinemann, 2013), rather it offers the same assessments, student checklists, teacher rubrics, and sample leveled writing pieces offered in the kits, but as a stand alone book. I can imagine this being a great tool for literacy coaches, principals, and other administrators who are supporting teachers using the Units of Study but who do not need their own kits.
I’ve digressed. My intention is to share how this resource got me thinking. A recent blog post about Writing Pathways on Heinemann’s website says, “Not only will [the learning progressions] help you track students’ progress across the three kinds of writing, locating each student’s current level and determining the next steps the student should take, but they will also help you to see the cross-currents between the three types of writing so that you can help students realize that lessons learned in narrative writing can transfer to information writing, and so forth.”
I hadn’t thought so clearly about assessment tools being a great way to teach transference, but then it all came sharply into focus as I looked at the student facing checklists from all three genre sitting side by side. What if, I thought, a student used the narrative checklist to assess her information writing? Or the opinion checklist to assess her narrative writing? Or the information checklist to assess opinion writing? Would that work? And what lessons could be learned?
So, I gave it a try.
I took the checklists to a group of fourth grade students, and I asked them to join me with a piece of writing from each of the three different genres. The students had used writing checklists in the past, so were familiar with this kind of self-assessment. I told them I had an experiment in mind, and I wondered if they could help me. I reminded them that even though there are different “kinds,” or genre, of writing, all kinds of good writing have a few things in common. We (OK, really I) named a few of the qualities of all good writing: clear organization, plenty of examples and details, an obvious topic. I told them that my experiment, then, was to see whether a checklist from one genre could be used to assess writing from another genre, since all good writing is so similar. I told them that part of my experiment was also to see wether using checklists across genres in this way could help writers to make their work even better.
Next, I gave the students all three checklists, and I encouraged them to use each to study writing in a different genre, and to talk to each other about what they were noticing. Here is a sampling of some of the lessons the students and I gleaned from this experiment.
Lessons Information Writing Can Teach to Opinion Writing
- Let readers know some big picture information in the introduction about the topic of the opinion piece. Explain the different things you will share about the topic.
- Consider adding headings or subheadings if it might help the reader to understand how the information is organized to make the essay more convincing.
- Leave readers with some important information at the end, perhaps share how the topic of the essay fits with other opinions on the topic.
- Include different kinds of information to support the essay’s reasons, such as: facts, numbers, names, and examples.
- Consider adding some visual elements to make the point more convincing, such as charts, diagrams, or bold words. (NB: I particularly love this one.)
- Use deliberate word choices, including words that are important to the topic, to sound knowledgeable and convincing.
Lessons Opinion Writing Can Teach to Narrative Writing
- In the beginning, orient readers to some of the important background information they need to know in order to understand the story.
- In addition to using words and phrases to show time is passing, use words and phrases to show how parts of the story are connected. Use phrases like: for example, in addition…
- At the end, bring readers back to some of the important ideas or images from the start of the story.
- Make deliberate word choices or repeat words to try to make readers feel a certain emotion.
- Use some actual facts to make the story feel more real.
- Use you own experiences or knowledge to add details that make the story come alive.
We learned that each genre had something to “teach” the others. Additionally, using a checklist from each of the other two genres could help to make writing in one genre even stronger. From now on, I will keep all three checklists in my toolkit, and I won’t wait to get them out until a matching unit rolls around.
Anna is a staff developer, literacy coach, and writer, based in New York City. She taught internationally in places such as Sydney, Australia; San Pedro Sula, Honduras, and Auckland, New Zealand in addition to New York before becoming a staff developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University (TCRWP). She has been an adjunct instructor in the Literacy Specialist Program at Teachers College, and teaches at TCRWP where she helps participants bring strong literacy instruction into their classrooms. Anna recently co-wrote Bringing History to Life with Lucy Calkins, part of the 2013 series Units of Study in Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing (Heinemann). She has been a researcher for Lucy Calkins, contributing especially to Pathways to the Common Core (Heinemann, 2012) and Navigating Nonfiction (Heinemann, 2010).