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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

More Than a Checklist

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Instead of just handing students a checklist to help them revise a piece of writing, why not teach them to reflect on—and take ownership of—their work?

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Instructional Strategies
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It's Friday and the students are sitting at their desks, using a checklist to quietly revise their narrative writing. For some students, the areas they check as "needing improvement" remain consistent throughout the year. Other students simply mark off a skill as "mastered," with scarcely a glance at the piece of writing in front of them.
Although analyzing student work has become an increasingly popular way for teachers to improve student learning, teaching students how to analyze their own work has received less attention. This important strategy entails teaching students how to make careful observations of their writing, set goals, and monitor their own progress—skills that are the backbone of college and career readiness.
The writing workshop offers a prime opportunity for providing such instruction. For most educators, teaching students to look deeply at their writing and make changes on the basis of their observations is, perhaps, one of the most arduous parts of the writing process. We acquaint students with the techniques of good writing in one mini-lesson after another, but we often forget to teach them how to dig deeply into revision and notice aspects of their writing style for the purpose of making improvements. We leave students with little more than a checklist in hand as they look at their work. And, too often, we notice that students have trouble extending those skills they've checked off as "mastered" to other writing tasks.
Teaching students to learn from their own writing requires recognizing the underlying metacognitive strategies people use when analyzing work. We call this process the art of noticing. It comprises three key concepts: noticing and observing, setting goals, and monitoring and evaluating.

Noticing and Observing

As teachers, we often instruct students on what to notice about their writing, whether it's punctuation or descriptive details. But how often do we have them reflect on what they tend to revise in their writing? What stands out to them? What's hardest for them to notice about their own work? How does what they notice as readers correspond to what they notice as writers?
One 4th grade teacher, Ms. Cotton, helped students as they wrote an expository essay about the African American struggle for equality during the civil rights movement. She'd noticed previously that several students needed more work on supporting their thesis by adding details and elaborating on how the information builds their claim. When Ms. Cotton looked at Aniyah's first draft (see Figure 1), certain areas jumped out, but as this dialogue shows, she let Aniyah take the lead in sharing what she noticed.

Figure 1. Aniyah's Draft Essay on African American Struggles

THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY

Today I read about the struggle of afracan americans.

Many years ago african americans people were treated poorly. Rosa Parks had to give up her bus seat to a White male because the city law said black people have to give up there seat to White people. Rosa Parks did not want to give up her seat.

Jakie Robinson was a luttenite He was in the army. Jackie Robinson was also in a league baseball team. Barbra Jordan was elected to the U.S representative. Jordan always believe that if people worked hard they could overcome any barriers and become successful.

Source: Published with parental permission.


MS. COTTON: Look at your organizer and your draft and tell me what you notice about your writing.
ANIYAH: I noticed that I wrote about people that helped with the struggle for black people.
MS. COTTON: Who were those people?
ANIYAH: Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Barbara Jordan. MS. COTTON: I want you to look at each person you mentioned and use your marker to underline what you wrote about them.
ANIYAH: Well … I wrote about Rosa Parks, but I didn't really write a lot about Jackie Robinson or Barbara Jordan.
MS. COTTON: Why not?
ANIYAH: I thought that I wrote more about how they were treated but I didn't …. I think I didn't notice that I only added a little bit of information. Sometimes I get so excited about what I am writing that I think I wrote something, but then I go back and see I didn't write it. Sometimes, I'm in a hurry to get it done and I forget to add everything.
MS. COTTON: What strategies do you think you could use to help you notice that you're missing items?
ANIYAH: I could read my paper again aloud and highlight notes from the article to make sure I added those things in my paper. I could also check off the details on my organizer as I use them for my essay.
A week later, they reconvened and Ms. Cotton asked her about the revisions she'd made.
ANIYAH: Well, I added a lot more details about each person. I realized I didn't have a lot of information about Barbara Jordan, so I took her out and added Langston Hughes because I felt like I knew more about him and he fit well into the essay.
MS. COTTON: How did you figure out what details to choose for each person?
ANIYAH: I wanted people to learn about their lives and how they had to struggle. That's why I talked about how Jackie Robinson and Langston Hughes felt. I thought that would make it more interesting for someone to read and that they could relate to it.
In conferencing and in mini-lessons, Aniyah reflected on the revision process, acquiring skills she can use in this essay and in future writing. She noticed something about herself as a writer. As students begin to develop a concept of their revision process, they become aware of their own internal processes or noticing. Revision becomes more than simply a mark on a checklist that one does for the teacher. This self-awareness is of utmost importance for students as they begin to challenge themselves to look at their writing in a new way and apply new skills to various types of writing.

Focused "Looking"

When we think about the impediments to noticing, one of the first challenges that comes to mind is not knowing what to notice. Many teachers might respond that the teacher-provided checklists highlight what students should look for in their writing. However, many students never internalize this checklist. Rather, they wait for the teacher to remind them what to notice.
Both veteran and novice "noticers" may experience distraction in this process. Even a two-page essay can seem as wide as the ocean, filled as it is with a whole world of words, letters, punctuation, and content to revise. To streamline the process, teachers typically have students examine their work through two different lenses: that of revision and that of editing. A student engaged in revision makes changes in content and contemplates the language he or she used, whereas a student focused on editing notices the more technical aspects of writing, such as spelling, punctuation, and grammar. However, for many individuals, these two categories may still be too expansive, leaving students adrift with too much to notice.
One strategy to help students maintain their focus is simply to cut back on what they're asked to notice. Have students choose one specific focus for their revision and then monitor that focus through the course of several pieces of writing.
Consider Aaron, a 4th grader, who's writing a persuasive piece. Aaron's teacher helps him narrow his "looking" by having him choose a specific focus from a writer's checklist. Instead of having to revise multiple aspects of his writing, Aaron instead focuses his observations on the effectiveness of his arguments. He writes the key points of his essay on notecards and lines them up in order of most to least powerful. In his discussion with a writing partner, he discovers that two of his points are similar. He reworks his idea to present a fresh and unique argument. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by all the things he might notice and change during the revision process, Aaron has a tight focus that helps him practice this technique of evaluating one's ideas.
Teachers can help reduce the distractions students experience during the revision process by teaching them strategies for keeping their focus. Try these strategies: reading their work aloud, highlighting specific paragraphs or sentences, and framing the selection they're focusing on. "Bottom up" editing—reading from the last paragraph to the first—can help students pay attention and notice aspects of their writing that may not have otherwise stood out when they read everything in the correct order. Students might also create checkpoint paragraphs to remind themselves of their intent. For instance, when Aaron looks through his essay, he puts a star beside certain sentences to denote checkpoints where he'll stop and ask himself how the previous sentences develop his argument.

Setting Goals

Teaching the art of noticing requires that students engage in goal setting. Too often, we either assign students a goal (such as making their thesis statement stronger) or ask them to choose a goal without giving them sufficient time to develop, articulate, and rationalize this objective. Teaching goal setting is a worthy use of time; it's a lifelong skill that students will use in both school and the workplace. As students take the time to consider their goals and decide how they will monitor their progress, they define what they will notice. Thus, goal setting and noticing are inextricably linked.
As students study various authors, they come to understand that those authors have a particular signature, area of interest, or tone that's reflected in their writing. Students should select their goals to help them understand their identity as authors, which means we need to help strengthen the connection they make between reading and writing.
Goals should be rooted in an authentic understanding of writing and a deeper understanding than simply, Do your sentences begin with capital letters? or, Did you use three new vocabulary words in your essay?
The cycle for goal setting can help students identify areas to strengthen in their writing. Johan, a 5th grader, was impressed by the descriptive way his favorite author Kate DiCamillo wrote. He had highlighted this sentence in her book Tiger Rising (Candlewick Press, 2002): "He made all his feelings go inside the suitcase; he stuffed them in tight and then sat on the suitcase and locked it shut" (p. 4).
In his first attempt at goal setting, Johan wrote, "I want to use more descriptive language." After meeting with his teacher and discussing his goal, he revised it to read, "I want to describe my characters and setting in a unique way and try to use metaphors, similes, or symbols to make the reader better able to picture the ideas in his mind." Johan determined that he would measure progress toward this goal by noting with a star the parts of his story where he attempted to do this and by asking three students for their feedback about those parts. Instead of engaging in an overly broad peer conference, he asked for more focused feedback. This, in turn, supported his peers, who were now better able to provide the specific feedback he needed to help him reach his goal.

Evaluating and Monitoring

In this phase of the process, there's a shift from the teacher being the chief evaluator and monitor of writing to students taking ownership as authors and evaluating their own work.
A conference is a good setting for helping students identify how they can monitor their progress. Student reflection is integral here. As part of the reflection process, students analyze their writing goals over time and the progress they've made toward those goals. Students don't need to wait until their drafts are finished to begin monitoring their progress. Reflecting on their progress toward their objectives as they draft affords them the opportunity to reflect on and improve their writing throughout the writing process. Here's how Aniyah analyzed her draft as she proceeded to answer questions provided by Ms. Cotton:
  • What was the purpose of this particular writing? This paper was written to inform. I wrote this for Black History Month. I can teach people more about black history and I can learn more about black history.
  • What more could I say about this topic? What is preventing me from writing more, and what resources could help me elaborate? I can add that you can learn a lot from reading the topic. The thing that's preventing me from writing more is I had problems finding text evidence.
  • What feedback has my teacher or peer(s) given me about my previous writing samples? Does that feedback apply to this writing? Some feedback peers gave me is that I could've written more details. I think this relates to this writing because I know about Rosa Parks, Jackie Robinson, and Langston Hughes and could have used some of the things I already knew about them in the paper …. Informing papers have a lot of details.

Re-Envision Revision

To be able to notice, observe, and effectively evaluate their own writing, students must write—a lot. They need to have a stream of multiple writing samples so they can look at their writing over time and monitor their strengths and challenges. It's not enough for students to have portfolios that are benchmarked at the end of the quarter or semester. They must write daily, intensely, and across a wide spectrum of genres, and they must have frequent opportunities to evaluate their progress.
As authors, we engage in several iterations of rereading, revising, and tweaking our work until we're satisfied that the words on the paper speak to the thoughts in our heads. We must teach students to pay attention and read through their writing—narrowing, focusing, and refocusing their lens as necessary.
A word of caution here. Many students write to complete a task or respond to a prompt. Although there may be appropriate places for such cold writing, the heart of writing experiences for students must be warm—in other words, meaningful and connected across the curriculum so students realize how putting their thoughts on paper helps them understand not only the content presented, but also who they are as writers.
The art of noticing can help students engage in the writing process at a much deeper level. Not only will they come to understand the nuances and traits of being an effective writer, but they'll also learn to see themselves as authors.

EL Online

To read about another aspect of formative assessment, read the online article, "What Conversations Can Capture" by Tonya Ward Singer and Jeff Zwiers.

End Notes

1 Blythe, T., Allen, D., & Powell, B. (1999). Looking together at student work. New York: Teachers College Press.; Nidus, G., & Sadder, M. (2009). Learning from student work. Educational Leadership, 66(5).

Gabrielle Nidus is a literacy coach and author of The Literacy Coach's Game Plan.

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