When Allison and Rebekah asked me to begin a new year of blogging by considering the first thing I would want the writers I teach to understand, this post nearly began writing itself. You see, I’ve spent this summer learning more about the power and practice of pedagogical documentation, and this has inspired some unexpected shifts in my thinking about what matters most inside of writing classrooms.
Of course they do. This is a simple fact. So simple that we tend to take it for granted. It’s easy to assume that the curriculum we design is intended for our students, but when I look hard at many lessons and units, it’s clear that they were designed to meet the needs of teachers and systems, not kids. It’s easy to assume that our assessments are intended to serve learners well, but if we’re disrupting learning in order to assess it, I’m not sure we’re doing it right just yet. And when we position ourselves at the front of the classroom, we’re typically taking ownership of instruction, aren’t we?
I’ve spent a great deal of time distinguishing teaching from facilitation this summer, and that brings me back to Allison and Rebekah’s question: What is the first thing I would want writers to understand this year, and how would I teach this?
The most important thing that I want writers to understand is that I’m learning as much from them as they will ever learn from me and that everyone in our writing community is a teacher. This isn’t a lesson that can be taught in a single mini-lesson or within the confines of my first unit of writing instruction. It’s a conviction that must be cultivated over time with great intention, and pedagogical documentation provides a necessary foundation for this work.
This summer, some of my greatest concerns about writing, learning, and teaching were confirmed through my work in varied classrooms and inside the WNY Young Writers’ Studio, a community I founded in Buffalo, New York: Most students assume that writing is all about print, paper, and screen and that most of their growth as writers is best measured through their completion of assignments and assessments, given by teachers (who are, of course, experts).
Documentation is beginning to shift these perspectives in several important ways:
- First, it’s helping all of us become more aware of the distinction between learning and its products. This is one of the primary goals of pedagogical documentation: Illuminating learning and examining it for specific purposes.
- When writers document and then speak about their learning experiences, teachers become listeners who lean in hard, in order to learn from them.
- Documentation allows us to access the voices of all of our students and assess learning without disrupting it. Rather than reducing complex understandings to tidy numbers that hide what’s most important, documentation relies on the use of qualitative data. Students capture audio and video recordings, photographs, artifacts, and documents that enable them to tell their learning stories. This provides insight that traditional assessments cannot.
This work has become so important to me that I’ve begun my own action research project on pedagogical documentation this year. I’ve invited a small team of teachers from different school districts to join me in this endeavor as well. They’re working on their own projects, and we’re supporting one another along the way. I intend to post our greatest discoveries here regularly each month, and I invite you to take what we’re learning and try it in your own writing classrooms. I’m happy to support you from afar, if you’d like to join us.
Interested? Take a peek at this guidance document for pedagogical documentation and think about just one thing you’d love to learn about the writers you serve at the start of the school year. Make documentation the first thing you do. Make it the first thing that you teach your students to do as well. Consider these questions:
- What do you want to learn about the writers you serve?
- How could they make their learning relevant to that topic visible?
- How could they capture it?
- How could you use that evidence to learn what matters most about your students and your practice?
If you take a peek at the picture above, you’ll notice that I asked primary writers to share their thinking about what they like to make, what they like to play, what they feel they are really good at, and something they are eager to learn as writers this year. These data are informing the lessons and units I design. They’re driving some of my most successful interventions with resistant and struggling writers too. I’m documenting with writers for a few purposes this year, but ensuring that our writing community is truly student-centered is one of the greatest ones. Approaches like this help, and those bits of data are ones I will want to hold onto. I’ll ask those questions more than once this year, too.
As you sink into the first weeks of school, capture as much evidence of learning as you can, and invite your students to do the same. Scoop it all up. Don’t stop to question how the data you are capturing support your chosen topic. There will be time to evaluate the quality of your data and make good choices later. For now, just begin. Grab what you can. We’ll talk about organizing and analyzing your evidence next month.
Here’s a quick recommendation to make your work lighter and far more meaningful: Give Seesaw a go. This free app makes the documentation and analysis processes a breeze. I’ve been using it almost daily for the better part of the last year, and this summer, the writers I support began documenting their own learning there. No one is paying me to say this, but I will, without hesitation: We love Seesaw. I hope that you and your students will too.
Happy new year, everyone! I’ll see you next month.
Are you interested in having a bit of sustained support as you wade into this work? You’re welcome to connect with me on Twitter. My handle is @angelastockman. You’ll find me on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters as well.