Using Protocols to Look at Student Writing: P.D. Possibilities

pd-possibilities-v2Throughout the month of March, each of the co-authors at TWT is writing a post about P.D. Possibilities.  One of the easiest ways to offer P.D. to writing teachers is to use student work to guide the conversation.  It is easy because all you really have to do is look at the student writing with a critical eye.  What are these students able to do? What do these students need?

In actuality, though, this task can be quite daunting when faced with a large pile of writing.  Where do you even begin? One of my favorite ways to tackle student writing is to use a protocol.  A protocol guides your work and provides a framework for the important conversation you will have with your colleagues.

Digging into Student Writing

The first framework is adapted from Diane Sweeney’s book, Student-Centered Coaching: A Guide for K-8 Coaches and Principals.  


  1.  First the facilitator frames the purpose for the conversation and introduces the student work that will be used.  (3-5 minutes)
  2. Next the teachers quickly sort the work into three piles: high, medium, and low.  This can be done prior to the meeting.
  3. The group examines the writing and looks for evidence of success or breakdowns in learning.  The facilitator’s role during this step is to prompt for evidence.  Teachers might sometimes make a generalized statement, such as “Their leads are really great.” The facilitator would ask, “Can you give us an example?”  (15 – 20 minutes)
  4. During Step 3, teachers share their observations, continuing until all evidence is noted.  The facilitator records the information.  I used a T-Chart with one side labeled ‘Noticings’ and the other side labeled ‘Evidence.’
  5. The whole group discusses the implications for teaching based on what was noticed in the student work.  Participants share in a whip-around, and at the end of the round the facilitator synthesizes the new thinking.  (10 – 15 minutes)
  6. Individually, each group member reflects in writing to name their next steps for instruction.  The whole group shares their next steps, and the facilitator takes notes for follow-up. (10 minutes)

You can see a sample of my notes after using this protocol here.  Using this protocol, we were able to analyze an entire class of writing samples and decide on our next instructional steps in under one hour.

Digging into Rubrics

The second protocol I like to use is ATLAS: Looking at Data.  It comes from work done by the National School Reform Faculty (which is a goldmine of protocols).  I like to use this protocol when looking at completed rubrics.  You can read the protocol in detail here.  Teachers often spend hours scoring their students’ writing and filling out rubrics or checklists.  Then what?  This protocol helps teachers use the data they have collected.

I appreciate this protocol because it first has participants simply describe the data without judgement.  For example, participants might say, “I notice no student scored above a 2 in organization” or “All students were meeting when it came to writing an effective lead.” The protocol then moves participants to interpret the data by asking, “What does the data suggest?”  Finally, participants reflect on the implications for their classroom practice. This is another highly effective protocol when faced with a pile of completed rubrics.

Next time you sit with your colleagues to examine student writing, try using a protocol.  It will guide your conversation, and you will walk away knowing just what to do next for your students.