Different Ways to Use Checklists in Writing Workshop

I could feel the excitement coursing through me as I fastened the metal seatbelt over my lap. “Wow,” I said, swiveling my head around and gazing out through the small window in front of me, “this plane is smaller than I imagined it.”  Glancing to my left, I waited for a response from my friend, Louis.  But none came.  Instead, I watched as he checked instruments, gauges, and controls all around the small cockpit.  He appeared to have slipped into another world, running through a routine unknown to me.  “Okay, check,” he whispered to himself.  Over and over again he carefully and methodically performed a series of small actions, a series I know now designed to assure that all was in order in his Piper PA-32 airplane.  Finally, he turned to me smiling and said, “My checklist.  Ready to take off?”

A short number of years ago, doctor and surgeon Atul Gawande published his ground-breaking book entitled, The Checklist Manifesto (Picador, 2011). While working as a staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I learned a little of Dr. Gawande’s work and its influence on the new materials being drafted to support young writers in a writing workshop.  The premise of the work seemed simple, yet genius:  in an effort to help kids make sense of the sheer volume of knowledge about writing, as well as the complexity of it (not to mention the common core state standards), we would offer them checklists for different types of writing. These checklists would one day become part of the Writing Units of Study in a book called, Writing Pathways (Heinemann, 2014).  Similar to the mental checklist I watched my pilot friend Louis run through that cloudy day in his little Piper aircraft, writing checklists would be designed to support writers in making sure necessary components were in order.

Whether or not your school now utilizes the Calkins Writing Units of Study (Heinemann, 2014) or another resource, it is important to remember John Hattie’s body of research that emphasizes a need for learners to have crystal clear targets for learning, as well as to receive meaningful, actionable feedback about their progress toward those targets.  Growing up as a young writer, I do not remember many clear goals for my writing outside of the requirement that they be grammatically and conventionally correct.  Today, we can celebrate the research that teaches us the importance of tools that can lay out clear, attainable goals for writers, as well as possible avenues of teaching for teachers.

Student-facing checklists can be a powerful tool.  While rubrics are helpful for teachers, checklists are helpful for students.  Checklists can serve to provide clear targets for writers as they strive to craft pieces within narrative, informational, opinion or argumentative writing, or any type of writing.  Those included in Writing Pathways provide descriptive language that is “student-facing”, language such as this in the grade 6 narrative checklist, “I used paragraphs purposefully, perhaps to show time and setting changes, new parts of the story, or to create suspense for readers.  I created a clear, logical sequence of events” (Heinemann, 2014).  Each descriptor is followed by three check-off boxes written in growth mindset language: “Not yet,” “Starting to,” or “Yes!”

Back in January, co-author Melanie Meehan offered some wonderful uses for checklists in her post entitled, Writing Checklists: Tools for Independence and Goal-setting.  Allow me to add to the list she started:

  • Lenses for analyzing student writing on-demands. When embarking on a unit of study in a certain type of writing, many teachers ask writers to compose a fairly quick piece of writing that showcases all they know about that type of writing.  Checklists can provide lenses through which we can study those on-demand pieces, allowing teachers to begin imagining avenues for teaching- both whole class lessons, as well as small groups.  When sitting down with colleagues to analyze student work, teachers can keep a checklist close by that lays out a clear vision for that type of writing.
  • Self-assessment and goal-setting.  Checklists can also be used with students for self-assessing writing and setting goals.  However, if such an experience is to be meaningful, writers need some explicit demonstration on how a proficient writer (teacher) goes about leaning on a checklist to self-assess and set goals.   Just like I am certain a veteran pilot once showed my friend Louis how to lean on a checklist when he was learning to fly, our writers need teaching in how to meaningfully use a checklist.  One powerful way to go about this is to share your teacher-written draft and demonstrate a thoughtful rereading of it.  For example, a sixth grade teacher might show how she rereads for an elaboration descriptor that calls for the following:  “I developed realistic characters, and developed the details, action, dialogue, and internal thinking that contribute to the deeper meaning of the story” (Heinemann, 2014).  Students benefit from explicit demonstrations that show thoughtful consideration of their writing, as this is not typically an innate skill.  Following the demonstration, I personally have found it also more effective to invite students to do this work independently with a writing partner, rather than working in isolation.
  • Guides for partner shares.  Perhaps midway through a unit, a mid-workshop interruption, or maybe an end-of-workshop teaching share time can allow time for writers to revisit a checklist.  During these times, students can self-assess either their work of the day or their overall progress in drafting or revision.  What goals have they met?  Where lies still more work to be done?  Teachers can support writers by, again, providing a quick demonstration on how such a sharing session might sound.
  • Teacher-student goal-setting conferences.  Checklists can be overwhelming for some writers.  This is why it is important to encourage students to select maybe two or three goals from the checklist, negotiating with them what feels most inspiring and within reach.  A student can write his or her goals down into the writer’s notebook, while you the teacher make a quick note in your conferring notes.  This provides you a line of inquiry when returning later to confer with that student.
  • Regular writing conferences.  When conferring with writers during the writing process, checklists can be a helpful tool to keep and carry.  Since the checklists I use are divided up into different descriptors within the categories of “Structure,” “Development,” and “Conventions,” I find them quite helpful when conducting a writing conference.  For example, during the research phase of a writing conference, I will often listen for where a student’s strength lies:  is it in structure?  Or development?  Or perhaps grammar/conventions?  Glancing at my checklist, I will then give the student a compliment from the area I have assessed as a strength, and pull a teaching point from one of the other areas.
  • Showing growth over time.  A math colleague of mine once taught me that pre-assessments, although meant to provide a teacher a sense of what a students knows and can do now, also hold a purpose unseen– to show growth.  At or toward the end of a unit of study, consider inviting students to revisit their old on-demands alongside a checklist they used- celebrate their progress! It is important for kids to know and appreciate their growth as writers.

Needless to say, my flight with Louis that day was successful (and quite fun!).  I never forgot the power of a checklist and its ability to serve a pilot in making sense of the complex work of flight preparation.  As we as teachers of writing all know, writing is also a complex process, filled with many considerations and challenges.  I invite you to consider some of these suggestions as you work to support the young writers with whom you work.  Also, what ways do you use checklists?  We would love to hear from you!