Providing Ladders of Expectations

The other day I had to write a description for my graduate lecture. I had no idea how to do this. Fortunately, the director of my MFA program has compiled examples, and I studied several of them. Although she didn’t rank them, I sorted them by what I liked, what I wanted to emulate. I am a writer who learns by studying the craft of other writers.

One of the pages in my chartbook that I have been using a lot with teachers who are new to grade level shows the ladder of expectations for a narrative beginning.

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While this chart makes sense to me, one of my teachers asked me what does this really look like in student writing. What a great question! With the descriptions of graduate lectures in mind, as well as the grade level standards, I wrote increasingly complex beginnings to the same narrative story that I’ve been using as a demonstration text.

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A third grade beginning


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A fourth grade beginning


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A fifth grade beginning

In the next class I worked in, I met with a group of four students who were getting ready to begin a new narrative writing piece. I explained that these three beginnings moved up the ladder of writing sophistication, and I challenged them to read all three and discuss as pairs the differences they saw. They were engaged in the work, insightful with their responses, and inspired as writers.

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To make my life easier–and I recommend doing this if you have a chartbook (and if you don’t have a chartbook, please think about starting one!)– I doubled up my page for beginnings and ends, and I have the examples on large sticky notes. I made a similar sequence for endings, and now I can interchange the two skills depending on the teaching topic.

When I returned to my four students, their comments included:

  • “I need to go revise the beginning I just wrote.”
  • “I want to make sure I write a beginning like the fifth-grade one.”
  • “Do you have one for sixth-grade?”

More importantly, they really did return to their drafts and included links to the middle and end as well as hints as to the important messages within their stories.

I know and appreciate the debate around whether to share grade levels with students, and I have also presented this continuum to classes as one star, two stars, and three star examples of writing. That being said, when students ask what the grade level would be, I do tell them.

In addition to teaching them about beginnings and endings, these examples provide important lessons about how writers learn by studying other writing, regardless of the skill. If we want to know how to ________, we read, evaluate, and critique ______________.  It worked for me, and I’ve submitted my lecture description. Now to find some mentors for the lecture itself!