Rubrics, posters, and kits are not essential to teaching writing–even trait-based writing. You can teach writing with nothing more than blank paper and a few pencils if you’re inventive and brave enough. On the other hand, it’s convenient to point to a poster or reach for a rubric. The problem is, these tools of writing can be misused–especially when we begin to see them as “the truth.” Here are a few suggestions for using these now familiar tools of the writing trade wisely and well (with thanks to teacher friends Judy, Ronda, and Barbara, from whom we borrowed some ideas to share with you).
Rubrics (aka Writing Guides)
Of all the trait-connected instructional tools, rubrics are the most misunderstood (and consequently, the most maligned). They’re often viewed as sets of rules that cannot be violated if you want your writing to be any good. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s a tip: Don’t call them rubrics. Call them writing guides. This will help you keep them in their place–as guides to revision, or guides to assessment. They’re not rigid rules–and they don’t hold all the answers because no writing guide can capture every nuance of good writing. You still have to use judgment, perception, and imagination. Writing guides are reflections of what we value at a given time, nothing more. And that is subject to change . . .
. . . which means that writing guides are never finished. Never. Even the very best among them are in-process drafts. That’s because (unless we purposely shut down our minds: “No Longer Accepting Ideas”), our view of what makes writing work evolves continually, mostly as a result of what we read. We read something that speaks to us, enlightens us, or startles us into a new consciousness and there’s an “aha” moment that translates into a new “rubric in the mind.” I defy anyone to read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and not think in new, revolutionary ways about conventions, presentation, organization–and obviously, sentences. If we’re quick enough, and articulate enough, we can capture some of those “aha” moments on paper–not to create new rule systems (how tedious that would be), but to open new pathways for thought. Here’s the trick, though . . .
Let students revise the writing guides they use–or create them in the first place. It’s in making the guide–not using the guide–where the real magic lies. We (here at Gurus) are constantly asked to develop a persuasive writing rubric to reflect the Common Core Standards. We’re resisting. Not because we’re curmudgeons. But because actually, that is a perfect task for students. Try it in your own classroom. Here’s how . . .
Begin by collecting writing samples that show varying degrees of success in crafting an argument (think speeches, editorials, reviews, political position papers, legal arguments). Rank them with students’ help, and then discuss them with your students. Together, identify the qualities (clear position, strong evidence, logical reasoning) that mark a successful argument–and the pitfalls to avoid. What makes one argument compelling? What’s missing from another? Write down what you find. Then check yur perspective against the essentials outlined in the Common Core. Think what your students will learn by doing this–and how much more they will value their own writing guide over anything you could hand them.
Writing guides make an excellent basis for discussion in one-on-one conferences, too. Try this strategy from my middle school teacher friend, Barbara, who uses student writing guides from Creating Writers (Vicki Spandel, Pearson Education). Focusing on just one trait (perhaps ideas), she and a student each highlight phrases from the writing guide (using their own, individual copies) that seem to match what they see or hear in the student’s paper. Then they meet at the conference to compare their “highlights.” Matches and differences make for a spirited and productive discussion about what’s working and what still needs to happen. Trust us, this approach will transform the way you think about conferences.
How about grades? If you use writing guides (rubrics) for grading, take some advice from my mentor teacher Ronda. She literally chopped the 1 and 2 levels right off her writing guide, so students (and their parents) saw only descriptors for level 3 on up. What a difference this made! No more fear of the quagmire. Everything was about aiming for the stars. Students whose writing did not seem to yet merit a score of 3 were asked to revise. Their writing wasn’t a failure; it was simply considered “not yet ready for assessment.” Very respectful. Respect and assessment aren’t often words used in the same sentence–but they should be.
Of all the things developed for use in teaching the six traits, none has ever been more popular than posters. Go figure. It’s the easiest thing to make for yourself, and yet . . . teachers LOVE them! There’s something downright irresistible about summarizing something as elusive and complex as voice in a nutshell. They’re handy in another way, too: The things noted on a good poster can often be turned into specific lessons. For example, a poster for organization usually features such things as a strong, inviting lead, natural and logical transitions, and a satisfying ending that leaves you thinking. Each of those can become the focus of a lesson–or a series of lessons.
As with writing guides, however, we have to be careful not to let posters start bossing us around. You put it on the wall, and suddenly it morphs into a set of rules, such as you might see at the local swimming pool. Don’t let that happen. Open your mind and see that poster more as creative graffiti (the artistic sort, not the kind slap-dashed on the wall by vandals). The poster captures first thoughts in a nutshell–but in the classroom, you can help those first thoughts blossom.
My teacher friend Judy (who taught third grade, and now teaches fifth) starts out her year with six trait posters. But instead of posting them all the first day, she puts them up one at a time, as she and her writers move from one trait to the next. Her students never memorize what the poster says. They look on it as one person’s view, a starting point. They fully expect to add their own thoughts. Each time a student comes up with a personal response to a trait–say, voice–Judy grabs a marker and a sentence strip. “Please repeat the thought you shared with us just now,” she says, writing the student’s words down verbatim. The strip is then tacked to the poster–which very literally “flowers” as weeks go on. Students love seeing their thinking captured in print, and best of all, the posters now belong to them.
Suggestion: Take Judy’s approach a step further, and create your own in-class posters for the big three umbrella genres of the Common Core: narrative writing, informational writing, and argument. And don’t be surprised that the more you read (and the better the literature), the more your posters “flower,” just like those of Judy’s students.
I’ve heard people say you cannot find writing in a kit. (Several of those people have gone on to create kits of their own, which is both ironic and amusing.) They’re right, though–well, sort of. But not exactly in the way they intended. The thing is, it’s probably more accurate to say that writing cannot be contained in a kit. It can’t be contained in a classroom, either. The only place writing lives and thrives is in the mind of the writer. But it’s still up to us as teachers to be the catalyst, to light the spark of excitement and get those mental gears turning–and kits (the good ones, not the evil ones) are chock full of suggestions for doing just that. But . . . big caution: The kits do have to be good. Really good. for one thing, they have a bad rap to overcome.
Writing kits have a reputation for housing worksheets posing as lessons. And that reputation is all too well-earned in many cases. It isn’t hard, after all, to come up with ten or twenty nifty and all-but-mindless “activities” tangentially connected to various traits. Anyone can do it. But random lessons stuffed into a box get us nowhere–and eat up valuable writing time. Worse yet, mindless “lessons” often advocate a formulaic approach (because formulas are so simple to write): a main idea with three supporting details, or sentence and story starters to “prompt” (read anesthetize) students.
By contrast . . . a well-conceived writing kit offers students opportunities to come up with their own topics, to do extended writing in multiple genres, to explore a wide range of outstanding literature in search of passages worth sharing, saving and emulating, and to work with partners in planning, writing, revising, publishing, and evaluating. In place of random lesson detritus, expect to find a thoughtfully designed series, in which every lesson builds on previously learned skills–and everything works together to build young writers’ confidence and help them meet the requirements of the Common Core.
Kits aren’t for everyone. Let’s face it: Some teachers feel using a kit is equivalent to wearing a life vest at the swim meet. If you need it, what the heck are you doing there? These people are dynamos who live to create their own writing world. They read several books a week (more on weekends), keep elaborate journals, write novels and poetry on the side, and would no more think of borrowing a lesson than cooking a frozen dinner. (They probably don’t hire landscapers or interior decorators, either. Most cut their own hair.) We need to wish them well and step out of their way before they run us over.
For many, many other people, though . . . a kit can be a Godsend. That’s because it’s full of STUFF. And teachers, most of them, like stuff. For years, teachers implored us, “Please–could you just share your lessons, your list of literature, your sets of student papers . . . ” These people don’t lack confidence–or creativity. They lack time. If you’ve been there, you know what we’re talking about.
We (Vicki Spandel & Jeff Hicks, via Great Source Education) designed our Write Traits Kits just for these people. Inside, we put the best lessons we’d taught, developed or adapted, the best literature we could find, the student papers that generate the most interesting class discussions, and lessons designed to make students think. No rules. No formulas. No kidding. But stuff? Oh, yes, stuff to the max . . . passages to revise, edit, discuss, assess, or read aloud. Book recommendations galore. Opportunities for students to be writers, reviewers, editors, and document designers. All right there at your fingertips. You can use as much or as little as you like–and nothing is scripted.
A well-designed kit will give you something to reach for when you need it, but it will let you be you. Because in the end, you are the ultimate catalyst.
If you love to read and write, if you are constantly learning new strategies for doing both well, if you cannot wait to see the next thing your students produce, then posters or kits or writing guides are simply tools to help you do what you were born to do–and what you will do brilliantly with or without them. If you do not love writing instruction to the very core of your being, however, then no poster or kit will help–because the one thing none of them can do ever, ever, ever is take your place.
Coming up on Gurus . . .
Later this week, we’ll take a quick look at a book recommended by a friend and colleague, Fred Wolff. It’s The River of Doubt by Candice Millard. The book is a masterpiece of informational writing, and if you’re a fan of biography or historic narrative, you won’t want to miss this one. Next week, we’ll review the inimitable Joyce Sidman’s new nonfiction book for young readers, Swirl by Swirl. For the best six trait professional development, please contact us: 503-579-3034. And remember . . . Give every child a voice.