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.