Using a Writing Survey

How do you get to know the writers in your classroom at the beginning of the school year? When I still had my own classroom, I took a writing sample on the first day of school and then scored the sample using our district’s rubric. This first-day assessment gave me a good idea of which students used paragraphs or had good control of mechanics or wrote with detail. As I look back, though, I wonder if this was a sufficient way to really know my students as writers.

For example, if you were to really know me as a writer you might know:

  • I write a lot of stories about my daughters
  • I need a deadline to actually get words on paper
  • I want to write a professional book for teachers
  • I tend to write in loud-ish places like my kitchen table or my backyard
  • I haven’t used my writer’s notebook in over a year
  • I love to write and I hate to write and I love the way this dichotomy makes me feel
  • I struggle to find my voice in nonfiction
  • I have writing mentors such as Kate DiCamillo, Katie Wood Ray, and my colleagues here at Two Writing Teachers
  • I’ve encouraged many of my colleagues to become writers

You would not know any of those things about me as a writer if I simply gave you a writing sample. You would have to talk to me (preferably over coffee) to know me as a writer. I regret not taking the time to understand my students better as writers.

I think it takes many weeks of writing and conversation and sharing to begin to uncover the writing identities of students. There is no quick and easy method. However, a writing survey at the beginning of the school year is a step in the right direction and can serve as a springboard for conversations to come. Some questions you might ask:

If you had to choose a room to write in, what would it sound like? Would it be silent? Would there be a TV or radio playing in the background?

If you could only write about one thing all year long, what would that be?

Imagine yourself fifteen years from now, a famous published author. What did you write?

Is there anyone whose writing you really admire?

Do you prefer to write with pencil/pen or on a computer?

Have you ever had a bad writing experience?

Do you know any writers?

Where do you think writers get story ideas from?

What does “living like a writer” mean to you?

As I think about using a writing survey in classrooms this year, there are three caveats I will keep in mind:

  1. There is no substitute for good conversation. This survey will serve as a conversation starter, not as an assessment.
  2. There will be many students who have no identity as a writer. Many students will be unable to answer some of these questions. That is okay, too – the lack of an answer is all the answer I need.
  3. The survey could be completed using pen and paper. It could also be completed digitally on a Google Doc or Google Form. A third option would be to use the questions as ‘interview questions’ and complete the survey with each student one-on-one over the first few weeks of school.

Taking the time at the beginning of the school year to learn about students in this way will help me be a more responsive and empathetic writing teacher all year long.

(For more on getting to know your student writers, don’t miss Beth’s thoughtful post from earlier this week.)