The Promise, Theirs
Anecdotal records. Conferring notes. Whatever you call them, making them more manageable is a common request in my work with teachers. This is exactly what third-grade teacher Danielle and I began to tackle together this spring. Even as we did, we discovered a few practices that take record-keeping beyond a mere necessity and transform writing conferences into an even more student-centered routine.
Our coaching cycle unofficially began as Danielle worked to finalize a rubric for research writing a few weeks into the unit. Having spent too much time already choosing words to create the “some-most-all” continuum with which we are all likely familiar, we talked about her vision for how students would use it:
“I want them to be able to articulate what they are doing as writers,” she said. She refers to the target of each mini-lesson as a “promise” she makes to students. During our initial meeting, she described how using the language of these promises would be a sure sign that students were adding to their “toolbox.”
What if, we wondered, we left space in the rubric for students to reveal what they are doing as writers instead of trying to anticipate all the possibilities for “exceeds” and “almost” ahead of time? There was no reason to fill in all the boxes, we decided. The blank spaces in the rubric (like those in Tara’s 2013 post) were the first steps toward a more student-centered writing conference.
With the rubric now ready for students, we could focus on Danielle’s system for record-keeping. It turns out, the perfect place to take notes was already at her fingertips: She spent the final weeks of the research unit experimenting with keeping conferring notes, not on her clipboard, but in the empty spaces on the rubric tucked inside each student’s writing folder.
It was during this time that I observed a conference with Brayden: After taking a moment to connect, Danielle reached for his rubric. Looking at her note from their previous meeting, she asked, “How are you doing using the transition, ‘according to’?”
He pointed to a spot in his notebook. “I was thinking about putting it here.”
“How would that sound?”
He read several facts from his notebook. “I read it on Wonderopolis, so ‘according to Wonderopolis’?” She smiled while he grabbed the green pen to revise his draft.
We later realized that Brayden had already independently incorporated this phrase based on the same note Danielle used to connect this conference to the last. More than that, as a result of this conference Brayden went on to include “in my experience” at the end of his draft, the nudge toward this “evidence-based” transition clearly captured in his teacher’s handwriting.
Within the first days of the next unit of study, Danielle tackled another obstacle on the path toward reaching her goal: “I do not want to ‘give’ the rubric to the kiddos yet,” she shared. Of course, as Amy describes in her 2019 post, Danielle knew where this unit was headed, and she was anxious to continue to use the rubric to keep her conferring notes. However, she was hesitant to abandon the practice of immersing kids in mentors at the start of any unit. Instead, she wanted to “lead them to co-creating the rubric because they have named what they liked about other opinion writers.”
With this in mind, she took the idea of the one-column rubric one step further: She handed it to them void of even the targets. From here, students are now responsible for adding her promises to the center column as they closely study attributes of opinion writing. Throughout work time, Danielle meets with them, adding notes like you see in Brayden’s rubric below. At the end of each workshop, she brings them back to self-assess—sometimes through a fist-to-five rating, other times, with a highlighter to show where they’ve used today’s mini-lesson—before they come to the carpet or turn to a partner to share.
A few days ago, I asked one of Danielle’s writers to share how her note, clearly visible at the edge of his desk, is making a difference:
“I look over there sometimes, and it reminds me,” he said.
“Can you believe that we used to write these kinds of reminders in our notes so that, as teachers, we would remember to talk with you about it. But we don’t need the reminder, do we?”
“No,” he said, “I need it.”
Day after day, more evidence of the shift in Danielle’s workshop emerges, like the question she now poses during closure: “Did you keep your promise?”
“The promise,” she shared in our recent debrief, “It belongs to them.” Her eyes filled with tears; “I feel like a weight has been lifted from me.”
The Promise, Yours
What started out as a coaching cycle to make record-keeping more manageable has become a master class in student-engaged assessment for both Danielle and for me. As if we needed additional evidence of the impact of this work, Danielle has noticed that more students are asking to share at the end of each workshop. “They are proud of what they have accomplished.”
She has reason to be proud, too. From the way she now keeps conferring notes—by essentially not keeping them—to the way she is keeping her promise—by giving it away—Danielle is transforming the workshop for this and every future class of writers.
Which of these student-engaged assessment practices might you try out before the end of the year? You could:
- strip your rubric back to only the targets;
- keep conferring notes, by not keeping them;
- co-create success criteria with students;
- shift responsibility from “mine” to “yours.”
Any of these possibilities is sure to make a difference in your final units of study and prepare you for a successful launch in the fall.
Morgan Davis is an instructional coach in Colorado. She has also taught grades 3-6 and served as an elementary literacy specialist. You can read more about her content-based literacy framework through her “Write About/Write Like” series and about her coaching style through her “Parallel Practice” series on her blog at It’s About Making Space. You can also join her there for the annual Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge in March and follow her throughout the year on Twitter @melizdav, Facebook @MorganDavisLit, and Instagram @melizdavis.
A writer who found myself in the summer workshop after my third year of teaching. The summer before my daughter was born. The summer after my first wedding anniversary. The summer before my dad died. The summer that changed my life forever because it added to my identity in a way that unlocked a way of life. That writing could be a tool, not just for thinking, but for being, was the greatest gift of that summer.