Best of 2015-2016: The “So, I Quit Grading” Series

The response to this series of posts about my experiment to give up traditional grading in my senior English class showed us that teachers are searching for a better way to assess student work — a way that helps build relationships and helps students grow. 

Here, you’ll find links to the three parts of this series: 

Part I: Introduction to the experiment

Part II: Mid-Year Check-In – How it’s going, What I’m changing

Part III: The Conclusion


Best of 2015-2016: Writing Workshop Workflow

There are a million moving pieces in a functioning writing workshop — this is part of what makes it so exciting, so dynamic. Each student is in a slightly different place in their writing, and it’s our job to try to keep it all organized so that we can best help our students. In this post, Allison shares her “writing workshop workflow” — the tracking systems that help her organize the individual writing processes of all the students in her classroom.


In the last three years I have moved from a paper system to an almost exclusively digital system in writing workshop. Finding a good rhythm in a digital environment requires just as much thought as in a paper environment. After a lot of experimentation, I think I’ve landed on a workflow that satisfies my student writers and me. This system has features that

  • allow students to receive feedback in a timely manner
  • help me keep a clear record of student submissions
  • show when I have put feedback on a student’s draft
  • give me immediate access to student writing, without having to shuffle through lots of folders and subfolders
  • put feedback on student work in the order in which it was received

Read on to find out more about this system!

The system has two main components: tracking student progress during workshop, and collecting writing for feedback.

Tracking Student Progress During Workshop

At the beginning of the year, I create a conference binder with three sections:

  1. Writing/Reading Surveys — distributed at the beginning of the year
  2. Writing Study Cover Sheets — a roster for each class, with the dates of the workshop running along the top
  3. Conference Summary for each student — a record of every conference I’ve had with each student throughout the year

Writing Study Cover Sheets

Writing Study Cover Sheet

Every class, after the mini-lesson, I do a status of the class — I call out the name of each student and ask them to verbalize where they are in their process and their goal for the day. I use the following key to track their responses:

Key for coding student progress during workshop:

BS/WP = brainstorming or writing off the page

D = drafting

R = revising

P = ready for publication

FB = preparing for feedback

PW = working with a partner

QC = in need of a quick conference

C = in need of a more in depth conference

T = searching for a topic

MT = working with mentor texts for guidance or inspiration

R = researching

If they tell me they are using a specific mini-lesson during drafting or revision, I write the name of the mini-lesson down instead of the generic code.

This cover sheet shows me a bird’s eye view of what is happening on any given day in each class. I usually highlight the boxes where conferences have occurred; it’s easier to identify which students I have not made enough contact with, which helps me prioritize my conferences for the next day.

Continue reading here …

Best of 2015-2016: Writing Explorers – 4 Ideas for Approaching Writing as Discovery in Your Class Tomorrow

I spent a lot of time with Donald Murray this year, working my way through his books and essays. One of my biggest takeaways is that neither I nor my students need to have all the answers before we begin writing  — and that is such an encouragement to anxious student writers! In this post, I share four ideas for weaving the language of exploration and discovery into the writing process. 


Have you read Donald Murray?

In my career, I had read a lot about Donald Murray. Tons that was inspired by Donald Murray. Oodles that has flowed out of the legacy of Donald Murray, but I’m ashamed to say that until the last month, I had never read the man himself. Until Penny Kittle told me to. And, as you all know by now, I will do anything Penny Kittle says.

Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I’ve read three books in about four weeks. My mind is blown. I am bathing in his words — words that are as fresh and startling today as they were 45 years ago when he first advocated for a better way to teach writing.  Make yourself a New Year’s teaching resolution — go to the source. Read Donald Murray.

Beyond his trailblazing as a teacher of writing, Donald Murray consistently amazes me with the direct simplicity of his message. He articulates truths that I haven’t articulated for myself and much less for my students. But truths that unlock the mystery of the puzzle that is writing. Among many treasures, Murray reminded me that a writer rarely know what she wants to say and then sits down to write. Rather, the process of writing teaches the writer what he wants to say:

“For most writers the act of putting words on paper is not the recording of a discovery but the very act of exploration itself.”

-“The Explorers of Inner Space”, 1969

While this is something I have known and felt as a writer, it isn’t something I have ever offered to my students. At least not in so many words. And what encouragement this might be for them! How many of my students would be able to dive into the deep end of their thinking if they believed that they didn’t need to know what they wanted to say first? If they felt free to “explore the constellations and galaxies which lie unseen within [them] waiting to be mapped with [their] own words”?

It’s a beautiful idea.

So how do we bring this down to the ground of our classrooms? How can we help our students understand that writing is discovery in a way that changes their writing? Here are four possibilities.

Continue reading here …

Best of 2015-2016: Structure as Mentor Text: How Can We Organize Ideas Beyond the 5-Paragraph Essay?

The 2015-2016 school year was an exciting one for us at Moving Writers as we expanded our team to include eight new authors! Lucky, lucky us! One of our most popular posts this school year answers a common question — if we aren’t teaching them 5-paragraph essays, how will students structure their writing? Check out Tricia Ebvaria’s post! 


A few weeks ago, I came across a post on the Teaching and Learning Forum on the NCTE website. The conversation centered around the usefulness—or the lack of usefulness—of the five-paragraph essay. Comments varied, with many teachers chiming in with their thoughts, both fervently for and against the form.

I spent the first five years of my career teaching 9th and 10th grade. During that time, I focused my writing instruction on the five-paragraph essay. And I was good at it. I mean, really good at it. My students, through much practice, could put together a thesis statement with three reasons, write the three body paragraphs with corresponding topic sentences, and a conclusion which restated their main ideas (in case those ideas weren’t already clear).

Not surprisingly, years later when I started teaching AP Lang, my juniors walked into my classroom in September unsure how to write an essay using any structure other than the five-paragraph form. Students’ first assignment is an “essay of introduction,” which they read to the class during the first week of school. I deliberately withhold any directions regarding structure, length, or format. How students respond can be quite telling. Over the years, I’ve observed two general outcomes: 1) students either wrote in the tried-and-true five-paragraph essay, or 2) students wrote with little attention to structure and turned in the dreaded one-long-paragraph essay. In the latter case, it seems that without being told how many paragraphs to write, students weren’t quite sure how to use a thoughtful paragraph break.

Over the course of the year, however, my students learn many other methods for organization. We study the classical Aristotelian structure—introduction, narration, confirmation, refutation, and conclusion—as well as the Rogerian approach. After reading and studying various real-world mentor texts, students begin to read like writers and write like readers.

But this year, I think I may have stumbled upon an approach to rule them all. 

Which brings me back to that post I read on the NCTE Teaching and Learning forum. Amidst all the responses for and against the five-paragraph essay form was a comment from Geoffrey Layton, a professor from the University of Oklahoma. Layton argued for teaching a form that is commonly found in many professional essays. Here is how he explains it:

The form is a statement of a “Commonplace,” supported by a “First Glance” and contested by a “Closer Look.” The “Commonplace” is a statement of “what most, or many people, probably believe about a topic” and becomes the assumption (or enthymeme) on which the subsequent argument will be based. An examination of a broad range of essays written by and for both academics and the general public begin with such a commonplace. A “first glance” is then used to support the commonplace, which solves the problem that plagues many essayists, even academic writers, when they assume that their naysayers aren’t competent rhetoricians. Finally, the “closer look” advances a differing but not necessarily an opposing or “agonistic” opinion. In other words, this form – a commonplace supported by a first glance and then contested by closer look – is a formula for advancing knowledge, the goal not just of the academy but all writers everywhere. It is what makes the essay such an enduring and necessary form.

The moment I read Layton’s response, I knew he was right. This form—the Commonplace, the First Glance, and the Closer Look—is a form I have seen over and over again in essays from the New York Times, New Yorker, The Atlantic, and so on. This year, I started to teach this form explicitly to my students, and the “CFC”–which quickly became our shorthand for this structure—is now one of my students’ favorite go-to methods for organizing their ideas.

Continue reading here …

Best of 2015-2016: In Search of a More Meaningful, Effective, Enduring Way to Teach Grammar

Each summer we press pause for a few weeks to tackle new writing projects and plan for the upcoming school year. And we reflect on where we’ve been by sharing with you the most-popular posts of the past school year. We will share these with you over the next five weeks, beginning with today’s post — one Allison wrote in the winter as she tried to figure out a better way to attack the teaching of grammar! 


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My whole teaching life I have been in search of a way to teach grammar that is meaningful, effective, and enduring.

I have tried bits and pieces of other people’s curricula for years––Kelly Gallagher’s Sentence of the Week, Nancie Atwell’s editing sheets and proofreading lists––but I’ve never been able to find my groove with these systems. And when I pore over student writing portfolios in June, I can see that my students have grown tremendously, but a lot of the writing is still grammar-rough (I’m using this term loosely––by grammar, I’m referring to all things grammar, mechanics, and usage). Not quite publishable. Still a few too many comma issues. Run-away sentences. And if I see one more misuse of the word their…

I know it could be better. Their writing. My instruction.

But how? I’ve tried almost everything!

For years I took Kelly Gallagher’s advice and highlighted three erroneous sentences in every students’ final draft. But this takes forever. And it sometimes takes my attention away from the writing itself––from the ideas and the structure and the heart of the message. I want to be able to glance quickly at the grammar, see the critical errors, and have a quick and painless way of moving forward to help that student.

I’ve tried Sentence of the Week models, and while weekly sentences can expose students to all kinds of syntax and sentence possibilities, it often feels random and disconnected from student writing. Sentence study is better framed as enrichment––as an “I want to try this in my writing” kind of lesson that students can get excited about.

Whole-class grammar lessons are only useful for a handful of students. This year, I am teaching a deleveled workshop, so my students’ grammar skills truly run the gamut. If I teach a lesson on comma splices, I run the risk of losing half the class.

I wanted so badly to make Nancie Atwell’s editing checksheets work for me. Her system was made in the true spirit of workshop––lessons drawn from patterns of error in student work, instruction delivered in conferences. But I struggle to give extemporaneous, bite-sized, simple explanations of grammar in 1:1 conferences. Students never take notes because they’re trying to listen to me, and I’m talking quickly so I can get to the next student… And when they lose their editing checksheets, we have no record of what they have learned and what they should be working on.

So lately, instead of getting down about my past grammar failures, I’ve been playing with ideas for a new system altogether, a system that has these characteristics:

Continue reading here …