I used to work a very structured private school. It was a school for students with ADHD and learning disabilities. The structure was part of the programming there that served to support these students as learners, not just at that school, but if they returned to public school classrooms. Though I teach much differently now than I did then, there are influences of that place in my teaching now.
One of the things that happened there was that the school year began with students writing a couple of diagnostic tests. The results of these tests were then used to inform a student’s programming. Instead of being placed in a class based upon the grade someone their age would be in, classes were composed around their strengths and challenges. I found a copy of the English diagnostic test we gave them recently. I doubt that I’ll ever use that particular test again, but I realized that I still do something similar.
As I approach the end of the year with my current Grade 9 class, I want to balance some fun learning, particularly our visual storytelling work with graphic novels, with some academic writing. We’ve been looking at storytelling over the course, so we’re going to look at short stories. We read, take notes and discuss each story, and then write academic responses, focusing on some basic literary analysis.
As I often do with a type of writing that we’re going to do multiple times, I actually give minimal instruction for the first response. They are simply told that I want an academic response that communicates the things of importance in their notes, and/or our collective notes I take during our discussion. This is my new diagnostic. I want to see what they can do, what they already know, and what aspects of this style of writing might warrant further instruction.
On my analog marking sheets, I track things that crop up on multiple papers, as well as noting areas of great concern for individual students. Often, the things that need to be addressed are almost universal. This list, I act on almost immediately. Students come in to see a blank Word document projected, and I write my version of the response that they wrote. We talk as I write, as I address not only the things that popped up, but other aspects of writing that are important. We’re very open that this is a first draft, and when they point out any errors I make, I stress that, as well as reminding them the importance of applying such scrutiny to their own work.
I write the bad stuff they do in my draft as well. We talk about Bad Magician, which is my term for that student habit of explaining what they’re going to do before they do it. “In this essay, I will…” or “Next, I will talk about the author’s craft.” I liken this to a bad magician, explaining each of their tricks before they do them, thereby removing any illusion of magic. It’s effective, and leads to a discussion of how we avoid Bad Magician, and how we can express ourselves better.
We connect our marking to the marking scheme for our provincial exam, which serves to assess four elements of written work – ideas, organization, language use and conventions. In this modelling session after the diagnostic, I focus heavily on the ideas and organization. This is what I want them to focus upon in their own first drafts. We do a bit of revising and editing as I write in front of them, but stress that that process can be secondary to getting words on paper initially.
One of the things that has stuck with me from my time at that private school is the metacognitive piece, and talking to students about the fact that we all process differently. I’m very up front about the fact that I show them strategies that they can use as they see fit. I make them jump through some hoops as we go because I want them to be aware of what’s happening. I tell them that we’re building a writing utility belt, with things we can use when we need them. Some of us might need to use more of these strategies than others, but the goal is to have them to level the playing field for us as writers. For some, these will become checklists that they use faithfully, for others, it’s simply an affirmation of a process they’ve already internalized and use.
This diagnostic is something that I use to help me do one of the things I’m worst at as an English teacher – grammar instruction. A move from rules and worksheet grammar instruction left a void I struggle to fill in what feels like an authentic way. However, a sampling of written pieces, this diagnostic, if you will, gives me what I need to focus that. I see the things that need addressing, and can focus on those things instead of an all encompassing grammar unit. If I may analogize, it’s like using diagnostic data as a mechanic, and fixing the problem as opposed to fixing the whole car.
I know it seems kind of strange timing, this musing on writing as a diagnostic tool, but it’s something happening in my classroom right now. I’ve made it quite clear to my students that one of the points of our short story study is to provide us a number of opportunities to practice, and grow, as academic writers. This enables me to focus my instruction, and actively work to improve our writing. It’s great at this time of year to allow us to end on a high note, working to improve, and celebrating that improvement. It’s also a great reflective tool for me, as I look ahead to next year, planning the next iteration of this course.
Do you have diagnostic activities that you do? How do you model writing for students? Have you cracked the secret code to teach grammar with great excellence?
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