Thoughtful Teaching of Test Writing as a Genre: School Leadership Blog Series

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In this week’s series, school and district leaders will share their insight on ways to support writing teachers. Stay tuned this week as they share their thinking on how to support whole schools. Today’s post is from Abi Wilson, Director of Instruction at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

As an administrator, my role is to support teachers so they can provide the best instruction every day for students. There are practical supports administrators can help to provide like materials, schedules that allow for longer chunks of times to teach, common planning times among colleagues, and access to technology. One of the supports that is integral, but less tangible, is hearing and responding to teacher concerns.

A recent concern we have grappled with is how to align our beliefs and practice about writing workshop with the demand for strong test writing. Last year, our students took the PARCC assessment for the first time, and our results forced us to look at how we help our students. We want our students to understand that the beautiful and detailed writing in narrative and informational genres that they are doing in writers’ notebooks are skills they can transfer to the online testing genre.

Our school, The Learning Community, is an urban public charter school in Central Falls, Rhode Island. One obstacle we face with the PARCC test is that our students have a wide variety of access to technology outside of school time. As many of us do, we also have concerns about how much screen time students have and what is developmentally appropriate. In grade level teams we explored our questions: How much technology time is enough for students to make them feel confident? How do we do that without giving them more screen time in the classroom and less face to face interactions? 

Studying Mentor Texts

I worked closely with the third grade team, as they began by looking at mentor texts. In this case the mentor texts were PARCC released item written responses in narrative, informational, and narrative genres. They were crafted by students across the country who had taken the PARCC assessment and were scored by teams of educators. We individually read all the responses and then discussed as a group what the similarities and differences were among the scores. We charted out what we saw as the hallmarks of each score to be clear on what we should notice with our students when we used these are mentor texts. What realized that this was writing we could envision our students producing but it was writing that we hadn’t taught into.

We noticed that to get the highest scoring, students had to have an introductory and closing phrase, sentence or paragraph for informational or literary responses. We noticed that the more specific the detail, through quoting or referencing the line number of the text, the stronger the score. We also noticed that paragraphing, as a skill, delineated top scores from the others. When broken down into what differentiated the responses, the task of helping our students meet this criteria seemed reachable. These were concrete goals our students could work on, along with the author’s craft and voice they already possessed from Writing Workshop.

Time with Technology

The next hurdle was to consider was technology. Our 3rd grade students were not often working on computers during writing workshop. They usually used writers notebooks and drafted by hand. We had started teaching typing skills in second grade last year, but our students’ typing was labored and not fluent. We began as a school this year by adopting technology expectations and goals for each grade level, 2-8, based on technology literacy skills. 

handsThen we thought about when is it appropriate for students to be working on a screen not a notebook. We asked ourselves how often we think they will need to do this to be comfortable. We also asked how can we incorporate into what is already occurring so it doesn’t seem disconnected or separate from the rest.

Designing a Unit of Study

While we do not want to spend our year in writing workshop teaching to a test, we felt it would do our students a disservice pretending it didn’t exist. The third grade team crafted a short two week unit that spoke to test writing as a genre study just like any other genre study.

This study began with students studying the mentor texts and working in a shared writing structure as a class to craft their own response. They then had opportunities to add onto the shared response in Google Docs. This provided a real reason for them to be online and was authentic in its purpose. For this unit we decided all final writing would be on a computer, but of course students could and should use pencil and paper to plan or draft as it worked for them.

Beyond the Test

We discussed when, in other writing workshop units, could technology be included as part of student work. We also talked about using google docs as part of guided reading groups and literary or informational responses as our 4th grade team was already incorporating into their work and we could lean on their experiences.

By supporting teachers, who can then support students, in understanding the genre of the test and helping them to have more experiences with technology, we feel they will be better prepared to meet the demands of the PARCC test this year. The reality for us is that this test is here to stay, for the time being, and we are working to help students respond to the demands of the test. Test writing is a genre and has a specific audience and our students are better prepared to meet the demands of the genre when we teach into it. Our writers are deft enough from their writing workshop instruction that they can do this work once they understand the genre, but they need our support in unlocking the genre and understanding the audience.

Abi Wilson works as the Director of Instruction at The Learning Community, a public charter school in Central Falls, RI and had worked as a classroom teacher, reading specialist and instructional coach for ten years prior. She is passionate about public education, the belief that children can learn, and that collaboration among teachers makes us stronger for our students.