Tuesday, June 23, 2009

BLog Tour: Mark Overmeyer Joins Us to Discuss his newest book What Student Writing Teaches Us

Today, Mark Overmeyer begins his Blog Tour with a stop at CREATIVE LITERACY to discuss his new book WHAT STUDENT WRITING TEACHES US.  I reviewed it here at the beginning of June and hope that many of you had a chance to check it out at Stenhouse.  This much needed book gives us insight into the importance of authentic assessment within workshop.

I had a chance to interview Mark about his new book. And some of you had additional questions that you sent in after I reviewed  it in early June.

When did you know you wanted to write a book?
I knew I wanted to write my first book (When Writing Workshop Isn't Working) when I was leading staff development in my district and I kept getting the same types of questions: What do you do with students who don't know what to write about? How do you help students revise? How do you organize and manage conferences?
This led me to try my hand at writing a book in a question/answer format based on all of these common concerns many of us have about implementing a writing workshop in our classrooms.
I decided to write What Student Writing Teaches Us after my editor at Stenhouse, Bill Varner, helped me to develop this topic - I had a few other ideas, but as he talked with me and read my proposals, he suggested I try writing about assessment in the writing workshop. At first I was uncertain because I did not think assessment was a topic I knew a lot about, but in the end, this may have helped me. As I mention in my book, I do not take the stance of any kind of expert, but more just a teacher who has a lot of questions about what works for teachers and students in real writing classrooms. I spent two years listening to students talk about their writing processes and teachers talking about their assessment practices. If I had felt like an "expert", I do not know if I would have looked and listened in the same way. I learned so much, and I hope the best of what I learned is presented is practical and helpful.

What are you hoping the book will accomplish?
I am hoping that teachers who read the book will come away with ideas for using formative assessment effectively in the writing workshop. I believe that if we want to become better teachers, we must use student writing to guide our instruction. For many years, I often dreaded looking at student writing because I was only "grading" their work. I did not think about what my students were learning or what they needed from me because I was too busy grading. I am hoping this book will provide very practical suggestions for teachers about how to avoid falling into the evaluation trap whenever they look at student work, and instead, to let student writing guide their teaching. 

What would you suggest for teachers who feel like they are the one person who is carrying the flag for authentic assessment?
This is such a good question, and also a hard question to answer! Please let me know if my response answers your question directly, because I can add some more thoughts if it does not quite meet your needs:
It can be very frustrating at times to be a teacher and to feel alone in your positions regarding instruction and assessment. I was just speaking with a teacher yesterday who is required to use grading software that scores her students' prompt responses "automatically." She found that the software gave her best writers the lowest scores because her advanced students were writing a variety of sentence structures, and at times used short, fragmented sentences for effect. Apparently, the software does not "like" sentences that are too complex or too short.
But if this type of assessment tool is required by the administration, then what can we do as teachers who believe in authentic assessment that guides our instruction?
One piece of advice I can provide is to continue doing what you know works to help your students improve as writers. I do believe in data, but the data I trust the most is actual student writing that demonstrate concretely how students are growing over time. 
Most of us have to give standardized tests. Many of us are required to give district prompts several times a year to demonstrate student growth in writing. Some of us must use grading software periodically with our students if for no other reason than that our district bought it, and it was expensive. But I do not believe any concerns raised from these types of assessment practices require us to abandon what we do most of the time in the classroom with our students if we use formative assessment. If we:
  • observe our students while they write, 
  • talk with students frequently about their writing products and processes, and 
  • plan our instruction based on what we learn from looking at student writing, 
we can become better teachers, and I am convinced our students will become  more effective writers.

Back for a moment to the data I trust the most: I have yet to work with any administrator or teacher who is unwilling to look at student writing samples collected over time to show what students are learning. So if the standardized test scores do not pan out as we hoped, for whatever reason, I first go to writing samples and ask myself if I agree with the standardized test results. If I do not agree, it is because I have plenty of writing samples to demonstrate how my students have grown, and I can show these samples - this data - to colleagues, students, parents, and administrators. Then, I can engage in a discussion about how the standardized test is a snapshot, an event in time, and I have plenty of data that demonstrates student growth regardless of what a single test may indicate. 
There are any number of reasons why a student may not show growth on a standardized test: lack of test taking strategies, lack of motivation, not reading directions carefully, etc. I want to make sure that their lack of growth is not due to my lack of instruction. In other words, I do not change my writing instruction based on a single standardized test score IF I have data in the form of student writing samples to prove that what I have done is working. Only if these student writing samples do not show growth will I consider changing my practices. In my experience, these practices always "live" in the context of a writing workshop, and the interventions I use are always framed around talking with students, reading their work to inform my instruction, and determining what strategies will help my writers to improve.

What would be the most important things you would do with teachers in a short period of time (staff meeting)?
If you want teachers to think about formative assessment in the writing workshop in a limited time frame (15 - 30 minutes), I have a few suggestions:

Ask teachers to look at one student writing sample together, but do NOT ask them to score the writing on a rubric. Once we begin scoring, we are not looking for what student writing can teach us - we are going into evaluation mode and we might get "stuck" there. 
Ask teachers to respond to these questions in groups of three to four:

What do you admire about the writing? 
   (Beginning with this question helps teachers to look for something positive in student writing, which will help them to see what students are doing well.)

What questions would you ask this writer, or what do you wonder about?
   (This question, combined with the previous one, might provide strong talking points for teachers as they confer with their writers. We often begin conferences with students by praising what they are doing well, and then by following up with a question for clarification, or just a wondering about their topic or their writing process. This questioning or wondering is NOT a teaching point, but just an indication for the student that you have engaged in their writing as a reader.)

What might you teach this writer? 
   (This question asks teachers to consider some learning objectives. I think the word "might" is important here because there is not one correct answer to what we should teach our students. There are many possibilities, and it is important to ask teachers to consider only one or two teaching points.)

As an alternative to this approach, teachers from each grade level can work in groups with one student writing sample to answer the same questions. 

The key component to any staff development around writing assessment is student writing samples. If we have student work in front of us, we have so much that we can learn.


From CAthy:
I am currently going through the book and I struggle with the DOL. I used to do it with my students, but didn't the past two years. I have heard that instead of showing students sentences with errors in them, that they should be shown well-written sentences. What are your thoughts on that? Switching up the looking for errors into what do you notice about the sentence?

This is an excellent question, and one I am asked frequently.
Jeff Anderson's book Everyday Editing describes exactly what you mention here: using well-written sentences in order for students to learn about craft and mechanics/grammar at the same time. The methods he describes, in my experience, are very effective and practical. In the book, he provides examples of well written sentences from published books that showcase craft and specific "rules" such as commas in a series and correct use of quotation marks. One of Jeff's guiding questions is: "Why are we asking our students to stare at what is wrong in order to learn how to do something correctly?"  I highly recommend this book.

A few things to keep in mind about grammar and sentence correction exercises such as DOL:
  • The research on grammar instruction is clear: grammar instruction out of context has a negative impact on student achievement in writing (see the Writing Next Report, available free online, or the classic book on research-based writing practices by George Hillocks, Writing as Reflective Practice)
  • The key to grammar instruction is to teach it in context. If you do use a DOL (sentence correction approach), then you should keep the incorrect model  up for a very minimal time, quickly talk about the correct way to write the featured model, and then ask students to apply what they have learned to their own writing. In other words, the application piece is key. Skills learned in sentence correction exercises will not transfer to student writing if:
  1. There are too many errors in the featured sentences.
  2. The sentences do not reflect errors students actually make.
  3. Students are not asked to consider how a learned skill might apply to their own writing.

I always hesitate to make broad statements such as "Never use sentence correction exercises" because I have been in some classrooms where teachers have seen students transfer skills from sentence correction work to their writing. But I have also been in many classrooms where teachers use Jeff Anderson's approach as well, which begins with students noticing what is RIGHT, then moving toward transferring the discussion about WHY the correct sentence is right to their own writing. For me, it makes sense to ask students to spend as much time as possible examining strong writing samples as they learn grammar and mechanics because then we are having rich discussions about craft and mechanics at the same time.

Some final thoughts and questions that will hopefully sum up my points here:

I have never seen a well-crafted sentence in a DOL teacher's guide, and I used one of these guides for years. Would I ask students to look at incorrect math problems in math class? Would a music teacher ask her students to listen to an off-key singer to learn how to prepare for an upcoming musical? Would a soccer coach demonstrate the wrong way to kick the ball in order to get ready for the big game? If not, then why do we think asking students to look at a poorly written, error-ridden sentence will help them to become better writers? 

Lauren asks:

My district is moving to online grading that is more of a "summative" type of online assessment and my worry is that parents will be receiving mixed messages about their child's progress.  Do you have any suggestions for communicating the importance of formative assessment to parents?

Thank you for your question. I want to make sure I am answering your question accurately:
Are you concerned about online grades being posted for parents to see? If so, I completely understand your concerns
when it comes to writing. This is a very common practice in my district, and most language arts teachers from grade 6 and up must post grades
online - in some schools, the expectation is that the grades will be updated weekly.
The problem with this, of course, is that effective writing instruction involves teaching writing as a process, not just a product.
So, how can we grade students on a frequent basis when we believe in the workshop model, and we believe we must use formative assessment practices to guide our instruction?
Here are a few suggestions that I hope will help. 
If we think of writing as mostly practice, and not just product-driven, it is hard to truly "grade" writing if by "grade" we mean "final, summative evaluation."
But if we use grades as indicators along the way in the workshop, I think it is possible to reach a middle ground.
Here is an idea I picked up from Pam Widmann, a brilliant middle school teacher I reference often in my book. Since talking with Pam and her students about how she grades, I have actually changed my own grading practices with the teachers I work with in the summer at the University of Colorado at Denver.
Pam taught me that we can grade practice writing if it is meaningful, and if it is used to help students to prepare for more complicated writing assignments.
For example:
Let's say that you are working on a personal narrative unit, and you decide to use quick writes to begin class a few days a week. These quick write exercises are low-stress, high interest practice opportunities for students. They resemble warmups for any sport, music practice, or theater rehearsal. Perhaps you ask students to describe an important person in their lives one day, and to tell about a time they got in trouble another day. The quick writes last about 5 - 8 minutes, and students can share their responses in pairs or with the class.
Pam uses this quick writes as small practice opportunities for every genre she teaches. So, if she is working on poetry, her quick writes deal with helping students to create images and sensory details. For literary essays, students practice making claims and supporting these claims with specific textual references.
Since the quick writes are non-threatening, and yet required, they can be graded. If your online grading system allows for Pass/Fail or Credit/No Credit options, then you can record grades this way.
If your online grading system requires actual grades, you can use points for these quick writes, but the points assigned should be very small - maybe 3 to 5 points per quick write. Because the quick writes are for practice, they are really graded in a Pass/Fail way even when points are assigned. In other words, the only way a student would not receive the points is if they decided not to practice...
The advantage to this idea, I think, is that students are being treated respectfully as writers: you are honoring practice (a type of formative assessment), and you are actually expecting them to practice because you are assigning points.
I can tell you that every student in Pam's class understands the purpose of the quick writes, and they see them as necessary to becoming better writers. Because of quick writes, Pam has grades to add to the online system each week. 
One way you can adjust this system is to ask students to choose their absolute best quick write each week, and to reflect on what they are learning as writers as demonstrated in the quick write. This reflection can serve as evidence for you regarding how the practices exercises are working, and it will also limit the points given to the quick writes - you don't have to assign point totals for every quick write, in other words, because you are asking students to choose their best one each week.
As students work through the writing process and actually draft, revise, and edit pieces, point totals can be assigned for each part of the process in a similar fashion as described above.
I hope this advice helps, and answers your question directly. Do not hesitate to ask me for further suggestions if I have not met your needs.

Mark has many stops on his blog tour this week. I know I will be checking out the questions and Mark's insights throughout the week.  Here is the schedule:


Franki said...

A great interview--I especially learned lots from his answer to Lauren's question about grading. Like the idea of grading quick-writes etc. to honor the process. I went this route when I taught 5th grade and it made the most sense. I'll need to revisit the interview again--it is packed with lots to think about.

Anonymous said...

Great Interview Katie-I look forward to reading the other posts :) Thanks!

Julie said...

Wow! There is so much to learn from this interview. Thanks so much for this post. It gave me a lot to think about as I'm planning for our school's teacher writing group. Just like Franki said, I can tell I'll be coming back to this so that I can ingest all of it. I can't wait to get the book now.

Karen said...

This is great! The assessment piece is huge. As we had into progress book this year, Lauren's question is very pertinent. Good thinking that will lead (hopefully) to better reflection!

Thanks for hosting MO today.

Mrs. V said...

I will also be referring back to this interview later. I appreciate all the thoughtful responses.

I was excited to see the mention of Jeff Anderson's book because I just saw those on the Stenhouse site and can't wait to read them.

I look forward to getting What Student Writing Teaches Us because this year our school has been focusing on assessment and data, and I know that the book will help me to continue to grow in this area.

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Mark Pennington said...

It seems to me that the key lines of division within grammar instruction (meaning syntax, word choice, usage, punctuation, and even spelling—a catch-all term that most English language-arts teachers use to describe the “stuff” that we “have to , but don’t want to” teach) have been drawn between those who favor part to whole and whole to part instruction. As a brief aside… isn’t this much akin to the graphophonic (phonics-based) and whole language reading debate? Anyway, here is my take on the assumptions of both positions:

Advocates of part to whole instruction believe that front-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language will best enable students to apply these parts to the whole process of writing. Following are the key components of this inductive approach.

1. Memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar to provide a common language of instruction.
2. Identification of grammatical constructions leads to application.
3. Familiarity with the rules of grammar leads to correct application.
4. Teaching the components of sentence construction leads to application.
5. Distrust of one’s own oral language as a grammatical filter .

Advocates of whole to part instruction believe that back-loading instruction in the discrete parts of language, as is determined by needs of the writing task, will best enable students to write fluently and meaningfully. Following are the key components of this deductive approach.

1. Minimal memorization of the key terminology and definitions of grammar and minimal practice in identification of grammatical constructions.
2. Connection to one’s oral language is essential to inform fluent and effective writing.
3. Reading and listening to exemplary literature and poetry provides the models that students need to mimic and revise as they develop their own writing style.
4. Minimal error analysis.
5. Teaching writing as a process with a focus on coherence will best enable students to apply the discreet parts such as subjects, predicates, parts of speech, phrases, clauses, sentences, and transitions to say something meaningful.

Of course, how teachers align themselves within the Great Grammar Debate (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/the-great-grammar-debate/) is not necessarily an "either-or" decision. Most teachers apply bits and pieces of each approach to teaching grammar. I take a stab on how to integrate the inductive and deductive approaches in How to Integrate Grammar and Writing Instruction (See http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-integrate-grammar-and-writing-instruction/).