It is early days in the school year, as evidenced by the sweltering heat here on Long Island and the getting to know you, community-building activities we’ve been doing in my third grade classroom. I’ve read my class The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and discussed how “Everybody’s story matters.” I’ve shown students my collection of writer’s notebooks and my most recent notebook, created for this school year. Students received bags and instructions on bringing in special items for their writer’s notebooks, which we will assemble together in class.
My students have also composed an on-demand writing piece. This first piece of writing will be displayed on a bulletin board and a few samples will be given to my literacy coach, as requested. But what else is there to do with this first piece of writing? In the rush of last school year and learning a new grade level (I switched to third grade after a decade of teaching kindergarten), I must confess that last year’s on demand samples were done to satisfy that requirement and then were placed in a folder- out of sight, out of mind.
Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” My second year in third grade is allowing me the chance to be more reflective and strategic in planning instruction. Now I know these early pieces of student writing can supply important information to help me tailor my instruction to this group of students. I developed a checklist to make some notes about specific indicators of the on-demand writing piece and student behaviors as they engaged in this task.
These were the behaviors or skills that I noticed and noted:
Able to select a topic: Did the student sit down right away and begin writing, topic chosen easily? Did the student ask me what to write about? Did the student pick a story from his/her own life? (One student wrote about The Three Little Pigs, indicating to me there was confusion with the word “story” and the assigned task.)
Stayed on task– wrote with stamina: Some writers used the whole front page and the back, others wrote a couple of sentences and declared they were done. This would be noted on the checklist.
Created an illustration: This was optional, but it was interesting to me that some students made detailed, colorful illustrations, some sketched quickly, and others chose not to make a picture.
Used punctation at the end of the sentence: Last year’s group of writers needed a lot of support with this skill and I was interested to see how this year’s group did with ending punctuation.
Uses descriptive, interesting language: What words did students choose in this first piece of writing? Did they select simple, easily spelled words or attempt to spell more precise, interesting, harder to spell words? Does their word choice show a rich vocabulary or a more basic one?
Story has a clear beginning, middle and end: Do students have a sense of story structure? Are there stories mostly bed to bed stories where it begins when they wake up and ends when they go to sleep? How do students choose to begin their piece? Is there any craft technique being used to begin or end the piece?
Handwriting concerns: The physical act of writing can sometimes get in the way of ideas flowing fluidly on the paper. Noticing who might have difficulty in this area will allow me to touch base with last year’s teacher and see if occupational therapy has been used in the past to help the student.
Other observations: While reading one student’s work, I noticed his use of bold, capital letters to make a point. He also attempted dialogue and used commas. His writing already showed voice. I wanted to be sure to note that and keep it in mind while thinking of future conferences with this writer.
After entering in all of the students’ information, I will use the checklist to notice patterns for planning instruction. If the majority of the class seemed to struggle with remembering ending punctuation, I know that is a minilesson I need to add for whole class instruction fairly soon. However, if there were only a handful of children forgetting ending punctuation, I could meet with them in a small group and continue to check in with them on this skill. If only one student had difficulty in this area, I could make a note to teach into that during a writing conference. I created this document to help me organize the information and patterns observed from completing the checklist.
The first few days and weeks of school are about building relationships, getting to know each other, and teaching into the routines that will carry us through a year of learning together. In writing workshop, the on-demand piece of writing provides your first glimpse of the student as a writer and is a starting point for where to go with your instruction. Using a checklist can help you to quickly note writing skills and behaviors. Once you see the patterns and areas where students need support, you can plan whole class lessons, small group instruction, and strategic conferences.
How do you use early pieces of writing to plan your instruction? Please share your ideas in the comments.