I had just smashed raw eggs on the ground – punctuating each sentence in a story I told the group about what it was like being a beat reporter in Newark, New Jersey for the Star-Ledger newspaper with a cracked, staccato crash. The kids were shocked. The teachers were smiling with their eyes above pandemic masks, labsite documents in hand. And I hoped that students would as a result feel compelled to write down what they just saw happen in front of them: a traveling teacher, dressed in heels and a long kaftan, tossing eggs around their ELA class on picture day.
“Your job,” I said, my eyes wide above my mask, “is to write what just happened so that anyone who wasn’t here to see can read all about it. Bring this story to life!”
They wrote. When I told them to begin, their fingers clicked furiously about my monologue – most on Chromebooks but a handful with pen and paper. This was launch day for a journalism unit, and I had taught that reporters capture the who, what, where and when for a story in order to accurately tell what happened, in sequential order. The classroom teacher and I wanted to understand, at a baseline, what the students could already do, and what we would need to teach into across the course of the unit.
What we did with that student writing is how I attempt to approach most student writing, because I know that their output means so much more than what they’re accomplishing from a fill-in-the-blank checklist.
Looking at Writing with Asset-based Eyes
The classroom teacher and I would scan that initial journalism writing to make like-piles of student writing based on what they already were doing really well. We would make note of the students who filled an entire page with details from the scene, and jot down which students named specifically where the egg-smashing took place: in a Chicago classroom, in Jefferson Park, on the second floor, at 10 o’clock in the morning. We would write a list of compliments and then pile by trend, sticking a post-it on each pile to support our next steps.
Student writing is data. It tells us what the students know, and it tells us what students need to learn next. It tells us which students have mastery of spelling and conventions, and it tells us which students can crank out quantity. And more than that, student writing helps us know what to love about the children I teach.
So when I am looking at student writing I first ask myself these questions, which are anchored not initially in direct writing instruction but in deeply listening to student writers, which then informs how I teach next:
- What does the child love?
- What fuels this child? What will inflate this child?
- What does this child do really well already?
- What can I share with parents and caregivers that is amazing about their child?
- What is this student sharing with me that I did not already know, that will inform the way I move forward in teaching them?
I can read student writing with the lenses of content and conventions, but the questions above inform my next moves with loving eyes and ears, maintaining a commitment to centering the students and storytellers in front of me for their ideas, minds and hearts first – not what they’re lacking or how “behind” they seem from other kids in other years, and not compared to other kids in their cohort.
I sometimes group students in upcoming days flexibly based on what they love (“Friends, I want to connect you all because all three of you make friendship bracelets, and I think I can help you make your writing stronger by…”) or I could simply make a mental note about my writers – that these three students, for example, jam out to Doja Cat or Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s Stuck With You.
Quick Sort and Nimble Groupings
There are sorts I can do for what students love and do well, and then there are sorts I can do for content. Both variations move student writers forward on their own progress lines, which is always my goal as their teacher. Once I gather student work, I shuffle through them and quickly scan for how they might be grouped. I ask myself whose writing is already well-developed, and whose is emerging, and who needs more guidance in putting words on the page. I ask myself whose composition might benefit from oral rehearsal and recording first. I typically put a post it on each pile that names what the students do well (the compliment; my connection), and what one tip I will demonstrate for students to make their writing stronger.
Instead of stringently sticking to inflexible groups, I think across my week to two days when I can shuffle kids and pull them according to a writing skill OR something they love and all have in common that I can build from. When I taught in the classroom, Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays were days when I put my metaphorical running shoes on and put my eyes on as many pieces of student work during independent work time, putting out fires and sitting with individuals. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I aimed to pull groups – nimbly, based on what I noticed earlier from student writing behaviors and output (or lack thereof).
In Street Data by Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan (Corwin2021), they wrote, “Educators are asked to prepare for and track progress on district wide assessments as opposed to cultivating awareness of what’s happening for students inside moments of instruction. As a result, we lose access to the complex human experience of learning, and our definitions of improvement and learning are severely constrained.” (149-150). I couldn’t agree more. And one of the ways I believe we might understand student experience is by looking at student composition with asset-based eyes, first to recognize students as whole children and secondly to determine flexible writing goals.