Controlled chaos—or to a passerby perhaps it looked more like complete chaos. A literal buzz was emanating from my classroom during the last week of the school year, to the point that I wished I could have all of the students miked to record their insightful comments. (My district literacy coach did the trick just as well.) I wanted to be able to catch their comments about their progress as writers, because for many of them, these comments were true celebrations!
I like to take time to really celebrate the work that my students put in each school year—or unit, or individual workshop session, for that matter—and we had finally reached that pivotal moment in the school year: the end. It was time to dig in and really see where we had begun our year as writers and where we had ended our year as writers. How had we changed? How had we failed? How had we succeeded? What were our biggest celebrations?
To answer these questions, we needed good, valid documentation of student writing, something streamlined yet authentic. This is where the use of a baseline, midpoint, and endpoint came into play.
In my school district in seventh grade we focus much of the writing work around three major genres: narrative, informational, and argument. For each genre, I start my writers off with a virtually blind timed writing. I will (often pretty vaguely—and intentionally so) give students the expectations of their 45-minute writing time. I will say something like, “Okay, writers, today I would like for you to write the best narrative that you can write in 45 minutes. Please remember to think about all of the elements a strong narrative has, and consider those as you are writing today.”
We use this baseline as a jumping-off point, a place for not only the teacher but also the student to reference as a “this is where I am as a writer of narrative at this moment” type of piece. Some students have only minimal tools in their writing toolbox for a particular genre, and others’ baseline pieces may blow me out of the water. But in either case, this is where we start, and as a teacher, this is what I let guide my instruction and conferring as we wander through the narrative journey.
About midway through an in-depth writing unit, I like to throw in another timed writing. This time, I essentially ask students to do just what I asked of them during their baseline writing experience. What is different now, however, is that their toolboxes as writers of a particular genre have started to take on some substance. They have gotten a chance to have whole-group, small-group, and individualized instruction based on their needs as a writer. Not only does this allow them to put these new skills to use, but it allows me as their teacher to see if what we are working so hard on together is truly sticking and being applied in a more formalized piece.
Just as it sounds, this final piece is a showcase of all their new learning as writers, a place to really “go all out” (and I tell them that as they sit down to write). What is different is that their toolboxes are chockfull now, and their experiences writing within this genre have been ample. This endpoint piece also looks a bit different because they are not working under a timed writing scenario, and they have opportunities for feedback, conferring, and polishing. This endpoint piece should be the outlet for writers to really put all of their skills on display for their audience to read.
During the last week of school, we logged on to the computers and took a walk down memory lane. Students went back to each of our three major genres of writing and looked at their baseline, midpoint, and endpoint pieces. I asked that they reread them and really think about what had changed about their writing in each genre and themselves as writers. I initially thought this would be a great way for them to see their growth and to notice, much like I had all year, the significant achievements they had all made. What really happened made the heart of a literacy teacher melt into a pile of mush.
As we looked at our baseline pieces, I heard (amongst many giggles and self-directed “ughs”) the following:
“Oh my gosh, I was only able to write, like, one paragraph.”
“This piece has no elaboration at all.”
“Wow: this is super-cheesy, not believable at all.”
“You literally can’t tell who is talking. It’s frustrating to read it.”
“I can’t even tell what it is I am trying to argue here!”
As we looked at endpoint pieces, I heard the following:
“I wrote so much more for this piece than I did my baseline.”
“My characters are soooo much more developed here.”
“In 40 minutes of writing I wrote a whole narrative, and for my baseline I only wrote two not-so-great paragraphs.”
“I forgot how good this narrative really is.”
“My plot development is so much stronger than in my baseline!”
Comments like these were tossed around the classroom as students continued to stroll through their pieces from the course of the school year. I literally sat back in awe at their reactions to their work. Ultimately, what got me the most were the mouths that these comments were coming from. Some of these students had never seemed to see themselves as writers, or struggled greatly as writers, and to see them have these revelations and celebrate their accomplishments was wonderful. Finally, they were seeing what I had seen in them all year long—just how far they had come as writers.
If my students were this proud of their writing, and the growth was this visible, it was crucial to me that we share it with our peers and with our families. Students chose one of the three writing genres about which they felt most proud of their progress and accomplishments as writers. We printed off a hard copy of both their baseline and their endpoint for this genre and prepared to celebrate our work. Keeping in mind that “artsy” activities are not within my wheelhouse, we adhered our baseline piece to the front side of a piece of construction paper and their endpoint onto the back. Students jotted a reflection of their growth at the bottom of the page and decorated it as they saw fit.
We rounded out our year in writing workshop with a gallery walk during which students could meander around the room and read one another’s pieces. Their only requirement was that they leave a positive celebration on a sticky note next to the work that they looked at that day. The affirmations that students received allowed them to walk out of my room feeling proud of themselves, feeling accomplished, and, most importantly, truly seeing (and for some of them, seeing for the first time) themselves as skilled writers who had grown.