Bridging Gaps Through the Power of Writing Through the Eyes of the Student

I have had a lot of conversations this year with teachers about expectations for students, specifically 9th grade and high school students, and it is clear that not everyone agrees on what the expectations should be for writers at the secondary level. Which, honestly is ironic considering the amount of standards and standardized assessments that are forced upon our teachers and writers. It seems the more these standards and assessments have been pushed on our classrooms, the less we seem to agree on what our writers can handle and at what level they should be able to perform a given skill. The conversation about expectations has been especially important and difficult this year given the amount of collaboration that virtual, hybrid, and socially distanced in-person learning has required of teams. This brings me to some essential questions I have been asking myself lately…

How do we know if our expectations are too high or too low?
How do we know if we are requiring quality or quantity?
How do we know if we are assessing the skill at the appropriate level?
How do we know if our instruction is not creating more gaps?
How do we know if we are not creating traumatic learning experiences?
How do we know if we are just checking a box or taking purposeful action steps?

You’ll notice that these aren’t just questions I have been considering for teachers. Rather, I have been considering these questions for instructional and administrative leadership roles as well at the teacher, team, department, and district level because if something is a conversation teachers are having, it should be a conversation in which everyone is engaging.

So, how do we start to engage in this conversation about student expectations with something concrete to guide our discussions?

Exemplars.

As teacher, department, and district instructional or administrative leaders, we can write exemplars of assignments through the eyes of the student to re-evaluate our expectations and have concrete conversations about how to adjust our expectations to meet our writers where they are.

Over the last few years, there has been an amazing shift in writing instruction to the use of student exemplars, teacher models, and professional mentor texts. This particular blog post intends to add to that conversation–not to replace it. In this particular conversation, exemplars refer to the creation of ideal writing task examples or assignments written by an educator through the eyes of the student at the appropriate grade level. It is important for me to note that this is not just about moving the writer–it’s about moving teachers, teams, departments, and districts as instructors of writing.

And, it’s not just about the product of the exemplar, it’s about the process that takes place while writing the exemplar that has the power to allow us to engage in important conversations about our expectations for student writers.

The Exemplar Writing Process
Many people in instructional leadership roles may be familiar with leverage strategies from Bambrick-Santoyo1. One of which comes to mind when discussing student gaps in knowledge and processes for identifying action steps to take in instruction once those gaps are identified. The See It, Name It, Do It Process is used at the student, teachers, and leadership level to reflect on current practices and establish direction for future practices. I would like to reverse this process to fit the exemplar writing process to: Do It, Name It, See It. 

Recreated outline using concepts learned from…
1Bambrick-Santoyo, Paul. Leverage Leadership 2.0: A Practical Guide to Building Exceptional Schools (Kindle). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

As a Student Writer
Although the exemplar writing process outlined above is focused on instructors of writing, the exemplar process can be a tool that student writers use to prepare for creative writing or visual projects. For instance, if a student is tasked with writing an article for a specific purpose or about a specific topic, they can seek out exemplars or mentor texts in order to establish what the expectations are, with real world applications, for that specific writing task. This applies to visual projects as well. Providing student choice is a common instructional practice when it comes to creating visual projects as a mode for students to demonstrate a deep understanding of a concept. If we are seeking to provide these choices without limitation to our own knowledge, we can open the project up to proposals where students submit exemplars of real world “projects” in order to serve as an example of the expectations they plan to meet. Take TikTok for example… if a student wants to create a visual project in the form of a TikTok video, but you don’t know enough to create guidelines or expectations for it, requiring the student to submit an exemplar TikTok and explaining how it meets the expectations is a perfect application of these skills and the exemplar process because they have to name and identify the skills required to meet the expectations through that platform. 

As a Teacher
Not only can we write exemplars prior to a writing task, we can use student writing as exemplars throughout the process as well to further promote a healthy writing community willing to take risks, provide positive reinforcement and feedback, and authentically collaborate during the on-going revision process. Teachers creating exemplars through the eyes of the students not only models ‘good’ writing, but creates an invaluable opportunity for teachers and instructional leaders to reflect on the skills needed to meet the expectations of the writing task and re-evaluate those expectations. These teacher-created exemplars can also be used as a model or demonstration throughout the course of a writing task–long or short. 

Exemplars don’t have to be perfect. The writing process is important which means that student writers don’t have to see a polished draft of a writing task; in fact, it may mean more to a student writer for them to see imperfect drafts because it provides an opportunity for us to share our thinking during the revision process. It also provides us with an invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate our own instructional or curriculum expectations of our student writers.

As a Team
Now more than ever, teams of teachers everywhere are being asked to not only plan together, but to plan the same thing at the same time due to the circumstances created by the pandemic. Despite these expectations, no two teachers teach the exact same way, which means the conversation about expectations has become an even more important and essential part of team planning. And, what better way to determine if we all have the same expectations in mind than to individually write exemplars from the perspective of the student writer and compare with our team members. Through this process, team members can say, “Here is what I think the students are capable of–what do you think?” as a way to calibrate the level of skill at which we are teaching. 

In the process of initiating this exemplar calibration, teachers do not have to necessarily bend to what their teammates believe is the level of student writing capabilities, but there can be an important conversation here about the assumptions and skill-level expectations we have for our student writers. And, after going through the process, returning to these initial exemplars, and comparing student exemplars to our own, we can determine where our expectations compare to that of our student writer reality. It’s all about re-evaluating and reflecting on our instructional practices and expectations for our student writers. Are we underestimating the capabilities or our students? Are we hitting the scaffolding levels of the diverse skill level of our students? Are we overestimating what they can do at their skill level and creating gaps as a result? Or, are we meeting them where they are at and filling those gaps?

As a Department
English departments come in all shapes and sizes: some as small as 3 or 4 or as large as 30 or 40 and some with teachers of multiple preps, athletic coaches, ESL or Sped teachers, intervention or advanced coursework–which means vertical planning looks incredibly different from district to district. However, one thing they all have in common is the need to develop skills in a logical and meaningful manner. At any level, there can be a pressure to feel as if we have to cover it all, but that’s not true. Student writers are always developing and progressing and they won’t learn everything they need from one teacher. 

(Enter: vertical alignment instructional and curriculum planning) 

So, if teachers from all parts of the department with all different approaches, backgrounds, and expertise can come to the table with teacher and student exemplars that demonstrate realistic expectations as well as adjustments that have been made along the way to meet the students where they are, then the vertical team as a whole can create a holistic view of how student writers will progress throughout the program. And, realistic expectations can be set and calibrated between grade levels for a diverse group of learners and writers.

As a District
Within a district, this exemplar writing and calibrating process can be used to bring campuses together to plan for student transitions from elementary to middle and middle to high school. Some districts only have these two major transitions, but in larger districts with intermediate, freshman, or junior and senior high schools, there can be between 3 – 5 transitions between campuses students make during the K-12 education. And, with every transition comes space for gaps to develop, but if campuses have opportunities to vertically plan and evaluate the expectations of the grade level before or after their own, then teachers can be better equipped to meet the students where they are with realistic expectations and strategies.

The Big Picture Through Small Details
At the end of the day, it’s all about the student writers, but in order to get at the reality of what they need, we need to put ourselves in their shoes and truly question our expectations. As lovers of English and college graduates from English programs, it can be difficult to ground ourselves in what student writers at specific grade levels need from us as content experts. By taking a first person look at the writing expectations and the skills that it takes to complete writing tasks, we can work in our classroom, team, department, and district collaboratively to create realistic and meaningful writing opportunities for our student writers.

Send me your thoughts, reflections, and questions! =) Continue the conversation with me on Twitter @StarianBlake, on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters, or email me at starian.porchia@allenisd.org. At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own.

Thank you!

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