Using Writing For Diagnostic Purposes

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.


Image via Casa Castelo

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.

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The Most Essential School Supply (Plus 3 Instructional Practices to Make the Most of It!)

It’s that time of year. Yeah, we may sometimes feel like we’re in survival mode with eager tallies marking how many Mondays are left in the school year, but as much as we might be counting down, we’re also starting to plan ahead for next year.

We’re waxing reflective and submitting school supply lists to the office. And as soon as we wave goodbye to the last bus pulling out of the parking lot, it seems like Target trots out their Back to School displays.

As you put together your supply requests and fill up your cart with discounted supplies, I’d like to make an argument for the most essential school supply on your list: a notebook.

Sure, I love my colored pens, sticky notes, and chart paper. I’ve tinkered with different binder organization systems. But if I was forced to choose just one school supply to help me ensure that all of my students will be successful, it would be a notebook – hands down.

notebooks.jpgNow, when I say “notebook,” I’m talking about a good, old-fashioned composition notebook. I like the size and especially the way it’s just a tiny bit harder to tear pages out, but I suppose in a pinch, just about any notebook would do. (And if you’ve got experience with keeping notebooks digitally, I’d really love to hear about it!)

A notebook is essential because if we really want our kids to engage in meaningful writing, we have to give them space to explore that process. And all the looseleaf, graphic organizers, and handouts in the world just can’t do that.

You know what I’m talking about with the handouts: color-coded packets stapled together and made up of boxes, bullet points, and fill-in-the-blank thesis statements. Fill in all of the boxes for the green page, and you’ll be ready to turn it into an introduction. Complete every bullet point in the yellow sheets, and your body paragraphs will practically write themselves.  I’ve done it plenty of times. The intentions are good. We want our students to have clear directions. If they simply follow these step-by-step directions, then we know they’ll get a good grade.

Sure, the intentions may be wonderful, but is it real writing? The process may be streamlined, but is the purpose really clear? Do students understand why they’re writing or for whom? And is putting together a bunch of slips of paper really what the writing process looks like?

Yes, the directions may be clear, but they beg so many more questions: Why would they want to write? Where’s the creativity? The growth mindset? What happens if a thought doesn’t fit neatly in a blank? Do you scrap the whole packet? When do we let students do their own thinking?

If we move away from the packets and step-by-step directions, notebooks can help us answer these nagging questions. Continue reading

Podcasting as Writing Process

IMG_8915.jpgThis is not going to be a post teaching you how to conduct a unit on podcasting.

(If that’s what you’re looking for, maybe someday. But also Stefanie has written a brilliant series on this starting here.)

Rather, this is a post where I will muse on what teaching podcasting has revealed about the process of teaching writing and what I might need to re-think in the future.

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Vi Takahashi speaks about her experiences in Seattle and TX during Japanese internment.

Because I often need a partner to nudge me to do something truly scary, I partnered with my social studies counterpart in a seventh-grade World War II unit that culminated in a series of podcasts. In history, students studied the war. In English, we read Night and/or Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl in literature circles, with all students studying excerpts of both during Notebook Time. We visited the Virginia Holocaust Museum and hit the jackpot when a connection helped us secure a guest speaker to discuss her experiences during Japanese internment.


After all this study, we put students in groups and asked them to do some synthesis of all they had seen and learned. Each group chose a question culled from The New York TimesStudent Opinion Questions (which are great for just about anything!) Here is our curated list of Podcast Guiding Questions. They used what they knew about history, about primary-source literature of World War II, and from their lives and the world around them to answer the question.

You can listen to our first season of our podcast, The Harkness, and see how they turned out! (Sam and I also recorded two episodes especially for teachers discussing our process, rationale, outcomes, and what we would change next time.)

But I told you I’m not writing a post about how to run a podcast unit! What awed me as we moved throughout the process is that podcasting forced students to confront and linger in parts of the writing process they most-often avoid. So, what does podcasting teach students about writing? And how might we alter our writing processes after this experience?

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