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Work Smarter: Use checklists throughout a unit of study …and beyond

Work Smarter Not Harder

I’ll begin by being honest – I don’t like checklists. It’s a personal thing.  Checklists make me anxious, they fill me with the fear of impending failure. As soon as I’ve taken the time to assemble a checklist, I am filled with a sense of dread. I wonder, how am I ever to accomplish any of this? and then I promptly find a way to lose said checklist.  However, I changed my mind about using checklists in my classroom after reading  this book, (which I blogged about here):

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and putting checklists into productive practice in my class. I’ve learned that checklists help us:

Organize our own thinking – what do we want our kids to learn?

I may have been averse to checklists, but I have always been  in love with rubrics.  Unfortunately, none of my students have ever shared this love; more often than not, my rubrics have been so filled with detail (stuff I wanted to make sure I covered in conferences and minilessons) that they’ve led my students to feel sense of being overwhelmed and confused when I’ve  handed them out as guides in writing workshop.

Checklists allow us to focus on the most important “stuff” we want our kids to learn – they are rubrics reverse engineered and made kid friendly to serve as constructive writing tools.  Because they are pared down and chunked by skill set, checklists allow us to organize and prioritize our own thinking first, so that we are better able to guide our students along the writing process.

Create a common understanding about expectations:

Writing Pathways makes it clear that “checklists cannot be a substitute for instruction” and that they “follow rather than precede” instruction.  So, although they in no way take the place of strategic mini lessons and mentor text study, they do reflect a certain common understanding my students and I have about a genre we are studying.

For example, we will have spent many a writing workshop period analyzing how to craft effective transitions in our argument writing before my students see them presented in their checklist:

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While drafting, conferring, and revising, the checklist serves as a reminder to my kids of what we mean by transitions – the  specific terms which we will have studied in writing workshop.  We have a common understanding, in other words, of what is expected.

Make conferences more effective:

Once the checklist has been presented in a minilesson, and each component has been thoroughly reviewed and explained, it becomes a wonderful tool for writing conferences.  Because the checklist is specific  without being wordy (see the example above, from the Argument Checklist), as rubrics often are, it is easier to pinpoint exactly what needs to developed, added in, shifted around.  When time is of the essence (do we ever have enough time to confer with our kids?!), it is a nice bonus to have the shorthand of a checklist for quick reference or re-teaching.

Create a foundation for revision:

Sarah brought this checklist to our pre-revision conference:

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As you can see, she was still struggling with the idea of using her introduction to show  how the main character in her narrative related to the setting.  All the question marks swirling around her “not there yet” box told me that this was an area she would want to focus on in the revision phase.  Our entire conference was built around sharing mentor texts to show Sarah how authors and peers had woven character and setting together in meaningful, interesting ways.  The checklist becomes  quick way to figure out where a student needs to focus their attention for revision.  Sarah had toyed with the idea of experimenting with a flashback in this particular narrative, but decided to forgo that experiment in favor of focusing on character and setting – key elements to master in writing any narrative. The flashback could wait for another time, perhaps during  another genre study.

Make our grading faster, easier, more clear-cut and objective:

Assessing writing is a tricky business.  I found, however, that once I had taught my kids how the checklist worked, and what each of the elements looked like, I felt that I had also passed along a certain sense of ownership of the writing. The checklist allowed me added insight into each student’s progress through the writing process – what they were aware of in their writing, how they had targeted revising and editing, and the effort they had made to go from “No!” to “Yes!”.

For my students’  individual assessments, I added numerical values to the checklist – the checklist then became their rubric.  So that when I sat down to confer with each student about how their published pieces were evaluated, they understood the grade.  That, my teacher friends, is a very good thing.

FYI: For my own teaching purposes, I followed a piece of advice Mary Ehrenworth gave us at the Content Area Institute in September – use the long rubric in the U of S on a small representative sample of student writing.  I will use this information to guide me as I decide what needs to be retaught or revisited as the year goes on.

Why stop with writing workshop? Why not go beyond??!

As with so many other things in my life, when I discover that one thing works, I want more of it.  This is why I have multiple pairs of the same shoe   styl- every color I could find.  So, checklists have now seeped into other areas of my curriculum.  Here, for instance, is a cooperative learning checklist I created for all those Social Studies projects we have:

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Now, my kids have a clear understanding about what “co operative learning” looks like and sounds like in Room 202.  The possibilities for checklists, it seems, are endless!

Have you used checklists in your writing workshop? Please leave us a comment and share how.

Remember to join us next Monday evening, November 10th, when we host a Twitter Chat about working smarter, not harder.  The chat will begin at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time.  Just search and tag #TWTBlog to participate.


14 thoughts on “Work Smarter: Use checklists throughout a unit of study …and beyond

  1. Tara,
    Your work here is brilliant. I love the checklists but have found the students and my understanding of each element takes time.

    I love the way your checklists look, the move to use them is all parts the curriculum and classroom expectations, the attachment of points to each piece (sooo smart). Mary Ehrenworth’s tip is huge.

    I’m wondering, when you give students a grade how do you factor in the on demands and workshopped pieces? We are having this conversation at my school. I tend to use the workshopped writing as a starting point and then look at the pre and post assessment as an additional element indicating growth. I struggle with this because of the testing element that will essentially be on big on demand! We have historically been required to align our grades with outcomes on testing.

    Thanks so much for all of your thinking, Can’t wait for the chat.


  2. I love using checklists! And also love Lucy Calkins’ Writing Pathways. I appreciated that you talked about how a checklist can’t replace instruction. I use some of the checklists form Calkins’ most recent Units of Study and Writing Pathways, and they are very helpful. However, I really liked the pictures you gave of the checklists you have used. I struggle with teaching the ideas in those checklists, especially the language that is used in them. I love that you broke down items found in those checklists into student-friendly terms that they can understand and use after instruction. Thank you for that idea!


  3. I am a fan of checklists and I love all the ideas you share here. I especially like the idea of using the checklists during conferences. I’m working with a third grade teacher on narrative writing and I’m taking this idea to her tomorrow. 🙂 I’ve used checklists in the past with my writers as they revised and edited, as well to help them create goals for both reading and writing workshops. Thanks Tara!


  4. I am loving this “work smarter” thread–thanks so much. In working with older writers, how do you avoid the “write to the checklist” syndrome? How about those students who equate checklists to grades? I would like to evolve more with my conferencing over checklists to avoid students who see them as a minimum competency to earn an “A”.


    1. I think that they key to using the checklist with success is the way it is first presented. My kids don’t refer to it until after they have drafted – by then, the mini lessons and conferences have made the checklist items crystal clear. They are not writing to the checklist, but using the checklist to cross reference. The checklists my kids use for revising/editing have no numerical assignments, it is strictly a writing tool with which to check their work.
      I hope this helps!


  5. I just used checklists last week with two English teachers! They were looking at how to write introductory paragraphs, so we worked with students to activate their prior knowledge–what did they already know about writing intro paragraphs, then we had the students make a checklist based on what they came up with, to be used with a sample paragraph, before using it on their own writing.


  6. I’ll refer back to “copy” some of your specific ideas, Tara, but I’ve used check lists when I give a new assignment, or a generic one depending on the writing. Now I’m going to review what I have & see how I want to approach. Thanks for this, a very handy guide for my thinking right now! I like “they “follow rather than precede” instruction”-exactly! Thank you!


  7. Tara,
    Your post is so timely and is perfect for your “work smarter” emphasis. I love that the UoS checklists are in student (also parent) friendly language with the “not yet, starting to, yes” columns that really can help students focus.

    I think checklists are so helpful in building common expectations as we work for student independence in writing and cooperative learning as you shared above!



  8. This is a great checklist! I, unlike you Tara, love checklists! I haven’t really used them in WW though. This year I have a class (grade 2/3) that has a hard time remembering to check anchor charts though. When we first started working on small moment writing I made a little tiny checklist (roughly 2 inches square) that said “who, what, where, when, why, how” and photocopied it on fluorescent orange paper. I cut them apart and glued one on each child’s notebook page. After a week, I still had about half the class needing them, but after 2 weeks only 1 person still needed one for each new piece. Because it was a bright visual so close at hand they didn’t ignore it. When I went to confer, we often went through the list together to make sure they were remembering to answer all these important questions with their writing. It was very helpful.


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