What Went Right?

I write this post coming off of a “grading high.” Assessing student work does not always leave me feeling cheerful and refreshed. There are times it leaves me feeling discouraged and plagued with questions: “What went wrong? How did so many of my students miss the mark on this skill?”

But as we race into the spring of a most difficult year, it was obvious what “happy accident” I needed to write about this month. My students this year have crafted some of the best personal narratives I have ever read.

In our ninth-grade curriculum, the personal narrative is one of two core assessments that uses a rubric from the school district and counts for 10% of their grade for the year. The stakes are high, but so is the buy-in. Every year, I tend to learn new things about my students and they tend to enjoy bringing their lives to life on the page for others.

This year’s experience has been especially positive, and I have to pause at this halfway point in my grading to think about why. What went right here?

Photo by Xan Griffin via Unsplash

Craving Connection

For my school, this year started as fully remote, moved to hybrid, and is now five-day, in-person. There are students who have been five-day at-home all year long in every class, and so each class still has students tuned into my instruction via the computer. This disrupts the natural order of how we establish connections and relationships. We have developed productive relationships nonetheless, albeit stilted and slowed by our circumstances.

Telling stories is an excellent way to build relationships. As we drafted and shared our stories with conference partners, I think it felt refreshing for students to establish the deeper connections they may have been craving all year, an unrequited camaraderie that has slowly revived through our storytelling.

PLC Support

For the first time this year I was required to have students complete their core assessments during the same two-week window as my grade-level partners. And, for the first time this year, I have quality PLC meeting time with them built into my schedule every other school day.

While there are aspects of our school’s PLC plans that still leave me wary — there is a growing expectation of lockstep assessment where I teach — I appreciated planning together for student growth and benefiting from the expertise of two teachers I highly esteem. To my colleagues, Lisa and Jason: You both helped me zero in on aspects of this assignment in better ways than I have before.

The New York Times Learning Network

For their Article of the Week assignment for several weeks prior to this writing project, they read winners of the 2019 New York Times Learning Network narrative writing competition. (2020 winners are now available too.) The Learning Network has a series of “Annotated by the Author” videos like this one where these remarkable young contest winners talk through their process, and I think seeing cool, slightly older teens talk with authority and precision about their own writing inspired my students to do the same.

Additional mentor texts included “The Monster of King’s Island” and two pieces written by former students of mine, one of which was all about trying to avoid writing a personal narrative.

This extended preview of the assignment let the mentor texts marinate, let us talk through what we enjoy as readers before beginning as writers. It made a big difference. As I assess their work, I frequently find myself coming upon lines in their writing that are homages to these published pieces, yet wholly original.

Four Revision Workshops

Everything this school year moves slower, and I’ve (slowly) learned to embrace that. Instead of packing several skills into a single workshop, I broke four skills down into four smaller workshops, allowing time for application each day. Students attended to the five senses in their imagery, removed clutter words to tighten syntax, edited dialogue, and “tinted” their work with reflection even better in years past.

This reminds me of something at the heart of writing workshop that I sometimes forget in the flurry of finishing curriculum: Isolating particular writing skills for immediate practice works wonders. Students are able to invest in that skill, take a deep dive into their work, and measurably improve it within a class period.

Students Annotating Their Own Submissions

Matthew Johnson recently wrote about the value of having students annotate their thinking, process, and choices on a finished piece of writing, something that is easier than ever to do with online submission. I allotted half of a class period on our due date to give students time to annotate, explaining their choices and spotlighting the strengths of their writing using the “Add Comment” button in Microsoft Word. I told them, “Think of how those teens on the NYT Learning Network talked about their decisions. Give me some of that in these captions!”

After recording this thinking, they uploaded their documents to our district’s LMS.

This has helped me to respond to the writer’s own observations, having a dialogue about writing choices and craft in the marginalia. Upon returning these papers, I had students email me a “feedback haiku” — a haiku written using words that I have included in my feedback — which offers me a quick mirror into what they gained from this dialogue.

While it may be the questions of “What went wrong?” that haunt us long after a lesson, unit, or assignment is over, it is so, so valuable to revel in the experiences that go well. These moments still require our introspection. The question “What went right?” can help us to grow by replicating, extending, or adapting our successes to meet the needs of our students. This investment in our own reflection can recharge us to continue approaching our work as writing teachers with vigor and enthusiasm.

— Brett Vogelsinger

What has gone right in your classroom recently? To what do you credit this success, and what can you learn from it for future instruction? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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