Asking Students What Worked

When I think about teachers I loved in my undergraduate life, I remember moments, and those moments usually involved emotionally charged conversations or laughter. Mr. Lindquist crawled across desks when he read The Pearl out loud, and he started to cry when he read the final paragraph of The Great Gatsby. He still asks me about the green light if I see him in town, and I will turn fifty this summer. (Yes. Fifty. That’s another blog post, I’d say.)

Other than these moments, I’m not sure I could tell you much more about his teaching. We diagrammed a lot of sentences. I wrote several essays. I don’t know if he lectured, or conferred, or differentiated, or provided mentor texts.

As our district’s writing coordinator, I see a lot of data, and we have some great systems for tracking trends in writing across grade levels, teachers, students, and genres. When data worries me, I reach out to the teacher, and we usually set up coaching cycles to try to grow those struggling and striving writers.

This spring, I visited two classrooms where the data was outstanding. I asked the teachers if I could come in and talk to students about what made the difference. I warned them that I might embarrass them; they were okay with that.

In the first class, I started by showing students their writing data–not by individuals, but as a whole.

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I explained that the blue represents exceeding, and usually I only see a few “blue students” in a classroom. I suggested that maybe this was because their teacher was an easy grader. I got a lot of head shakes. I suggested that maybe their teacher walked around when they took their on-demand assessment and told them exactly what to write. I got some laughs. Then I suggested that maybe their teacher was a really good writing teacher. When they shook their heads yes, I challenged them to think about why. 

“Can you help me identify what she has done for you as writers so that I can share those practices with other teachers and other children might get to have similar experiences,” I asked.

This group of fourth grade students kept my pen moving on a chart, recognizing and citing so many workshop practices–time to write, short lessons, a quiet focused room, tools, practice pieces, mentor texts, partner critiques, a teacher who writes…Screen Shot 2017-06-07 at 9.25.02 PM

I’m sharing the chart I created as they shared, both in its entirety and with some pictures of parts I found especially interesting.

I approached the second teacher’s classroom a little differently, even though this was coincidentally also a fourth grade classroom. Instead of beginning with a whole class conversation, I gave them each their own paper to write on with three questions to think about:

  • How are you a better writer?
  • Why are you a better writer?
  • What specific things did you teacher do to help you improve as a writer?

As students wrote answers on their papers, I invited them to share their responses on a collaborative chart. Again, I am sharing the chart as a whole and the parts I especially loved. Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 6.31.45 PM

While the first group of students enumerated workshop practices, I loved that this group of students recognized the importance of having a teacher who pushed them and motivated them and expected more from them than they expected of themselves until they started to set higher goals for themselves.

I left the chart with the class for the day so the students could continue to add to it. When I returned to collect it, their teacher gave me the chart and the papers, but she had made copies of the students’ responses to give to them because she thought the reflection was so important for them.

Both of these teachers were reluctant to accept credit for their students’ success. Reading their students’ responses about why they’ve had so much growth over the course of the year, I’d challenge the teachers’ hesitancy to take responsibility.

Yes, these students will remember how their teachers made them feel, and maybe from this sort of reflection they will remember some of the specific practices that made a difference in their lives as learners. More than anything else, I bet that when those students think back on their elementary days, they will remember their fourth grade teachers who made them feel like writers, an incredibly important element of a successful writing workshop.