No one is born a writer. You must become a writer. In fact, you never cease becoming, because you never stop learning how to write. Even now, I am becoming a writer. And so are you.
A Blessing and a Curse
Early in my career I had the opportunity to study with Carl Anderson for 15 days over the course of one school year. At the time it felt like a cool opportunity, but now I see the way it gave me deep and well-nourished roots as an educator. In the foreword of How’s It Going?, Carl’s first book and one I consider part of the “canon” of professional books for workshop teachers, Lucy Calkins describes working with Carl as sprinkling Miracle-Gro on educators. This was true for me.
One of the things Carl often said was, “When I’m around writers, I’m assessing them. I can’t help myself.” He warned that it is a blessing and a curse. Once you begin to notice the writerly moves students are making, it is natural to also identify what they are almost doing as writers. Carl made us laugh when he explained the trouble it caused when his young daughter simply wanted affirmation on her stories, rather than a teaching point.
I decided I wanted to be like this, too. Returning to my classroom after the session with Carl, I keenly observed what students were doing as writers. I was strict with myself in naming their behaviors. I didn’t care to use technical terms; I simply wanted to notice writerly moves.
To me, this is the place all teachers of writers ought to begin: by noticing the writerly moves their students make. It doesn’t matter how inexperienced a child is as a writer; when given the invitation to make a book, write a story, or teach how to do something, nearly everyone can write. It may not be conventional, but something fills the page.
Some students may create lines of loops at the top of the page or string random letters along the bottom. Some may create people with arms and legs coming out of heads. Some may not capitalize proper nouns. Some may forget paragraphs. Some may include only dialogue in a story or forget to use sequential order in a how-to essay.
As I learned from Carl, none of this is an indicator that students lack the ability to write. On the contrary, for all of these scenarios, I can name what the student knows as a writer.
The lines of loops or strings of letters are evidence that the writer knows words are important to writing. Egg-head people indicate the writer knows action and characters are important to stories. Proper nouns that are not capitalized are evidence that the writer knows to use specific names. Forgotten paragraphs show the writer knows to write more than one part of the story or essay. Nonsequential order shows the writer knows to include more than one step.
I’ve trained myself to notice writerly things whenever I’m around writers. I’m hard pressed to read anything, even a published novel, without identifying the writerly moves. It is a blessing and a curse.
As soon as I name what kids are doing as writers, I can also name what they are almost doing, or what they need as writers. The writer who strings random letters needs to learn letter-sound correlation. The writer who forgets paragraphs needs to learn to break their writing into smaller portions for the reader in the form of paragraphs. The writer with a disordered essay needs to learn to reread for order.
If you take the time to keenly observe writers in action, you will discover that almost everyone has the ability to write. You will also discover many approximations kids make as writers. Be warned…it is a blessing and a curse!
This week we look at assessing writers. Plus more as always—enjoy!
Editor, Choice Literacy
Stella Villalba teaches young writers about writer’s craft. So how come evidence of learning from the minilessons isn’t showing up when she confers with her students? She decides to develop a plan to help students link craft lessons with their writing.
Katrina Edwards deals with a frustrated writer on the verge of tears in her first-grade classroom. She realizes the element that is missing in her writing workshop is joy.
Joanne Emery writes poignantly about the struggle of a young child with an on-demand writing assessment. Her poem and narrative are thought-provoking and an inspiring guide for assessing writers in a personal way.
Our courses are being redesigned and will be released this winter. At that time, all courses will be free for Literacy Leader members, and select courses will be free for Classic Classroom members. Courses are available to purchase for everyone else.
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Tammy Mulligan shares small and mighty moves when assessing students online. (The primary focus of this article is on assessing readers, but many of the moves are compatible with assessing writers.)
Looking at student writing and deciding what to teach can be overwhelming. Kate Mills and Tara Barnett pinpoint common writing difficulties in sixth-grade memoir. They share teaching points and student writing samples before and after revision.
In this week’s video Katrina Edwards helps first grader Brooklyn order and stretch out her writing with a beginning, middle, and end. She uses long pages and scissors as tools.
In an encore video, Melanie Meehan uses a conferring card in her writing conference with Cara to ensure she has a record of the strengths and revision possibilities they discussed.
Heather Fisher shares five “hidden gems” she uses to keep her positive vibes strong. She encourages school leaders to be mindful in noticing when their positivity is fading and restore it.
David Pittman thinks through what really matters and nourishes him as well as the teachers he serves when it comes to assessing his impact as a literacy coach.
The NCTE Position Statement on writing assessment offers five principles to ensure valid, fair and appropriate assessment practices.
Too many of us now approach a blank page not as an occasion for discovery, but as a minefield to be traversed gingerly. We inch our way from word to word, concerned less with clarity and precision that with sheer survival.
—Joseph M. Williams
That’s all for this week!