Slow and Steady

I have a confession to make.

Now before you go judging and disagreeing with me, promise me that you’ll read to the very end before forming any opinions.

Promise?

Here goes…

I don’t believe in diagnostic writing assessments at the beginning of the school year.

Whoa!  Are you judging me already?  Just wait.  Hear me out.

You see, I used to…  About the third day of writing workshop, I’d pull out these great stories that left the students wondering, stories that left themselves open for topic choice and format, stories that I was sure would inspire students to do their best writing.

And my intentions were good: I wanted to see what they already could do as writers, so together, we could build on the knowledge they had already internalized about good writing.

But very quickly, here’s what I discovered.

I wasn’t getting their best writing.

Why?

First, for many students, my classroom was their first experience with writing workshop.  And so given choice and freedom, they were left nervous and afraid.  They didn’t know what to write, they wanted a formula to follow.  Instead of my goal of pencils rapidly writing across the page as their ideas spewed out, I instead fielded questions of how many paragraphs were required, or what exactly I wanted the topic to be.

But more importantly, I realized  these students didn’t yet see themselves as real, true writers.  Anyone who has taught middle school students, knows that you need to tread lightly, as these students are especially afraid of being judged.   Entering a new classroom, with this crazy new teacher who pumped up writing in a way they had never seen before, made them feel nervous, self-conscious, and inadequate.  So, they gave me what they thought I wanted.  A few short polished sentences, where they tried as hard as they could to hide their insecurities.

Then it dawned on me.  They didn’t trust I was using these writing pieces to form opinions only about what they could do as writers.  And while my intentions were pure, I will be the first to admit that I did notice those who struggled with spelling, those whose were barely legible, those who had no clear topic, those who repeated the same adjectives over and over again, those who drew on the back of the page longer than they wrote.

Unintentionally, I had already forgotten my most important mantra as a writing teacher: I had placed myself as the writing authority in the classroom who judges what does and doesn’t make good writing, instead of being a fellow writer, learning and growing in my own practice alongside the students.

So back to the drawing board I went.  I started with clearly defining what the mission of writing workshop was in our classroom, and how the beginning of the school year fit into that.

I decided that if I wanted our workshop to be a place where students truly felt respected, they had to trust me, and they had to see the value and power the act of writing truly has, not only for an individual, but also for a community of writers.  It was not yet my place to assess their writing, or pass any judgments on them, for they didn’t yet view themselves as writers, or me as anyone who they could trust.

As a result, I completely flipped the way September looked.  First, I let them look at my writer’s notebooks.    And not just the notebooks for school either.  They were able to view heartbreaking entries from when I lost family members, entries where I am using writing as an outlet after receiving some particularly tragic news, entries after travel experiences, entries about fear.  I shared with them the parameters of writing workshop, particularly emphasizing choice.  We talked about my journey as a writer, and how like them, I used to believe writing was simply a formulaic act done just to receive good grades.  We engage in multiple quick writes using published pieces, written by teenagers, just like them.  We work on developing ideas for future pieces, and most importantly we write in our notebooks every single day.

By the end of September, they feel like writers.  Their ideas are not only acceptable, but valued and complimented.  Although our relationship is just beginning, they are beginning to trust me, because I was honest, vulnerable, a writer just like them.

Now, they’re ready for their “assessment.”

This time, the “assessment” is simply a blank piece of paper, which has the following words written across the top of the page, “Dear Mrs. F., Here’s what you need to know about me as a writer …”  This time, there are no questions of expectations, or length, simple silence as pencils rapidly scratch across the page.

Crystal, a sixth grade student writes, “It is hard for me as a writer.  I did not really write last year, but I like to write.  I am not good at spelling so some words might be wrong.”

Marty, an eighth grade student, in barely legible scribbles, writes, “You need to know I’m not the best printer, I take my time, but I am trying my best right now.  This is as neat as it will get, but look beyond that and I have great ideas.  I love writing stories, so please don’t judge how smart I am by the way my writing looks.”

Everett, an eighth grader shares, “I can’t read chapter books yet.  I really want to read chapter books, because it will help me be a better writer, but I need help.  I want to make bigger stories so I could show my Mom and show her my good work in this classroom.”

And Brady, a sixth grade student confesses, “If I get too frustrated, I’ll start to tear and maybe start to cry, but I’ll hide it and just shut down.  I get stumped and put so much pressure on myself to get good grades. I’m nervous to ask for help.”

Each year, I stress and worry about the weeks I take in September to develop the culture in our classroom, when there is so much to do.  However, by stepping back and allowing them the time to feel comfortable, to develop trust, by honoring their opinions, and modeling how and why one becomes a writer, I know we’re well on our way to a very productive year of writing.

Oh, and by the way, I do use diagnostic assessments later in the year as we get into our units of study, and by then, the rapid scratches of writers who can‘t get their ideas out fast enough, is music to my ears!

Nicole Frederickson is crazy in love with teaching reading and writing.  For years she taught a multi-grade 3/4/5 classroom in a small, rural Canadian school, before moving to a middle-school, where she found her true calling as a teacher.  In her spare time, Nicole of course, loves to read and write, do yoga, bake and spend time with her family.  Nicole has a personal blog, More Than Blueberries,  and tweets at @nbcheshu.