assessment · equity · feedback · formative assessment · inquiry · reflective practice

Let’s Get Curious! Using Appreciative Inquiry in the Writing Classroom

Most teachers have experienced more than their share of poorly-designed data discussions and problematic paperwork. Being immersed In a world where language like “struggling,” “low,” and “learning loss” are all too prevalent can lead educators to focus on perceived deficits …and then plan instruction that attempts to fill in supposed holes or gaps. This perspective is not only depleting and outdated, but it’s also dangerous. It’s time to readjust the focus and consider a new vantage point. 

 When we…

  •  …shift our lens, looking for and celebrating what students already know and can do, it enables us to then select strategies that will propel engagement and ongoing learning. 
  • …use an asset lens (as opposed to focusing on deficits), we focus on and utilize students’ strengths and potential.
  • …connect assets with appreciative inquiry, we get curious and activate an inquiry mindset. Teachers using appreciative inquiry wonder things like, “Since ____ is in place, what could come next? How else could I support students in stretching and expanding their existing repertoire of skills?
  • …use appreciative inquiry, classroom learning experiences are intentional. Lessons help students in outgrow themselves and grapple with increasingly complex ideas.
  • …respect the unique journeys of students and then contemplate and craft teaching that feels relevant and compelling, students become more successful.

Appreciative inquiry is all about enacting this change in perspective. 


The benefits of asset-based instruction and feedback are well-substantiated. NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development shared an article (which I LOVE) that eloquently states, “An asset-based approach to education is key in achieving equity in classrooms across the country…With an asset-based approach, every community is valuable; every community has strengths and potential” (NYU Steinhardt, 2018). But perhaps no one says it better than Dr. Gholdy Muhammad in her 2020 EdWeek interview with Larry Ferlazzo, “Deficit perspectives and thinking lead to poor and basic instructional practices.” Let’s commit to starting with what students already do and building off of these strengths. 


We can use an asset lens with appreciative inquiry anytime and anywhere. Over time, this outlook and practice tend to tuck themselves into all kinds of big and small moments. Here are a few examples of when using appreciative inquiry feels especially beneficial in a writing classroom:

  • When we look at a pile of pre-assessments or on-demand writing samples and try to efficiently identify prioritized goals for the upcoming unit of study
  • When we plan minilessons and prepare for small group seminars 
  • When we flip through student writing folders or notebooks
  • When we observe students as they write independently
  • When we choose something to highlight and suggest for a mid-workshop interruption
  • When we eavesdrop on a conversation happening between writing partners or members of a writing club
  • When we talk with individual students during a conferring conversation

The synergy found in the asset lens-appreciative inquiry connection is invigorating. This way of approaching students/student work becomes a mindset that we can bring to all that we do. 


Appreciate inquiry is a natural extension of using an asset lens. The key is to make sure there is a strong connection between what is noticed and what you imagine teaching next. The goal is to enhance current skill sets by building off of what is already in place. This means avoiding a literal or figurative “BUT.” For example, instead of saying, “You helped me picture the story in my mind by including the background in your sketch. Let’s work on adding punctuation to the end of each sentence,” you might instead say, “You helped me picture the story in my mind by including the background in your sketch. Since you are already using that strategy to help your reader envision the story, I think you are ready to practice adding in little actions. Let me show you one way to do this….” Alternatively, while looking through student work, instead of thinking, “This student used domain-specific language that was tied to their topic. Next, I will show them how to make more exciting headings for each section,” you might instead reflect and connect: “I see that the student is using domain-specific vocabulary to sound like an expert. Perhaps I can show them how to support their reader’s understanding of this academic vocabulary. Maybe we could work on including definitions or extra information within parentheses or appositives.” 

Building new habits can feel a little clunky at first. Below you will find some guidance on putting these ideas into action.

Click here to access a presentation with ideas and tools for using an asset-lens and appreciative inquiry.

Students are our north stars. When we get to know students (academically and beyond), we can more clearly see and honor who they are and what they know. Appreciative inquiry enables us to capitalize on the abundant assets already present. These practices help us prepare responsive and engaging learning experiences that feel “just right” for current learners. Bonus benefit: Building this habit brightens each day and adds a “rosy tint” to all that’s done in the classroom.