ACGAL blog

Assessment in Writing Workshop

A Student of Nancie Atwell

Early in my teaching career, I was fortunate to visit the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) in Edgecomb, Maine, as an intern.  This school is an independent demonstration school founded in 1990 by the Global Teacher Prize winner, Nancie Atwell. Nancie is legendary for her work with Donald Graves in the establishment of Writing Workshop.  In my days at CTL, I sat at Nancie’s feet to understand how to cultivate and sustain young writers. I heard Nancie say and read repeatedly in her seminal text, In the Middle, that she “never graded individual pieces of writing.”  Students grow as writers, and this process is slow and different for each writer.  Nancie suggested one piece of writing “can never provide an accurate picture of a student’s abilities; rather, it represents a step in a writer’s growth – and not always a step forward.”  As new techniques, new mini-lessons on writing conventions, new genres, and new forms are introduced, young writers are often overwhelmed with the task of incorporating all of this into the next piece of writing.  From experience with young, middle school writers, I know it can lead to classroom disasters.

While at CTL I became completely engaged with the way Nancie Atwell conferenced with each student during writing workshop.  Those conferences were full of assessment and feedback. They were two-way conversations between a master and an apprentice. As Nancie concludes in her text, I realized at the heart of her assessment process was reliability and validity.  Assessment in her classroom was reliable as her conversations with students reflected the expectations she communicated in her classroom each day during Writing Workshop. Assessment in her classroom was valid as it did not impose on the class as a whole a set of objective standards that demonstrated “good” writing.  As an intern, I developed an understanding of how she would step back and evaluate each writer’s growth over time and each student’s willingness and effectiveness in trying new things in each piece of writing. Nancie always encouraged us to use our own journey as writers to better understand how to support young, adolescent writers and also coached us to never shy away from the details of a student’s writing development.  Clearly, Nancie was a student of her students. And I was a student of Nancie Atwell.

After each student conference where interns were given the opportunity to fish-bowl around the conversation, Nancie would point out the processes she had established to make Writing Workshop succeed.  First, she had specific expectations for students to assess themselves. At the end of each trimester, students completed an extensive self-assessment that included questions such as 1) how many pieces of writing did you complete this trimester?; 2) Which genres did you try and why did you choose them?; 3) What are your favorite genres to write and why?; 4) Which two pieces of writing are most effective? Why? List what you did as the author.; 5) What were your major accomplishments this year as a writer? What were your most significant changes?  Describe them. And the list went on. Through this feedback from the student, Nancie combined her own notes with students’ responses to create a Trimester Progress Report for each writer. This described accomplishments, strengths, and challenges. Most importantly, Nancie described 5-7 goals for each student writer to focus on during the next trimester. This progress report is shared in parent-student-teacher evaluation conferences at the end of each trimester.

Nancie graciously emphasized her understanding of how each of our schools as interns were probably different than CTL but also encouraged us to work to think through how to improve our current Writing Workshop practices and grading routines to lift the quality of student writing.  She encouraged us to at least focus on goals for each writer. In the Middle describes the reasons why this is the right work: “Teachers at CTL do not assign grades.  A student’s incentive is the work itself – engaging, working toward goals, and experiencing increasing power and pleasure as writers, readers, critics, mathematicians, historians, and scientists.  I acknowledge this is a luxury. I know I’m lucky not to have to stick numbers or letters on my kids. But I also know that without the incentive of grades, my methods have to be strong enough to impel kids – to convince them that what I’m asking them to do has intrinsic worth and meaning.”

My time as a CTL intern confirmed in my practices that Writing Workshop assessment is an opportunity for students’ to analyze their own work, describe their progress, and set goals that support their growth.  Assessment in Writing Workshop is an opportunity for teachers to step back and look over the horizon of the students’ experience for a period of time. We can learn about students’ learning. Additionally, this approach to periodic Writing Workshop assessment strengthens what both teachers and students do in Workshop time for the rest of the school year.

Once I came back to my school, I collaborated with other writing teachers in my building.  We began to study how to maximize our teaching effectiveness through assessment in Writing Workshop.  We met together and studied current writing research and analyzed student work to help one another decide what were the accomplishments, challenges, and goals that we should discuss with students.  Without knowing it, we practiced collective efficacy because we held firm beliefs as we met together that we could develop young writers and, in effect, create better humans. We also practiced self-efficacy because we knew as teachers, we could improve our own work.  To this day, those teachers are some I hold in the highest regard. I am now a district administrator, and I consistently stress to building principals the need to call good people to best practice and create opportunities for them to collaborate. Watching Nancie Atwell do this each day with her own colleagues at CTL established in my core the vital work of knowing students, understanding and valuing their growth over time, and maintaining collaboration with fellow teachers in order to improve my own practice.

Atwell, N. (2015). In the middle: a lifetime of learning about writing, reading, and adolescents. Third edition.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Paige Raney is the Chief Academic Officer of Guntersville City Schools. Paige is a National Board Certified Teacher in Literacy. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Alabama Literacy Alliance. She is always and proudly, a teacher. Follow her on Twitter: @PaigeRaney

Let Students Shine: Student-Led Conferences Using Standards-Based Portfolios

Have you ever been so excited about a parent conference that you couldn’t sleep the night before? Did you talk with your coworkers about the anticipation because this is the day you have waited for all year? Let me guess – your answer is N-O!

Why Student-Led Conferences?

Parent-Teacher Conferences are not known for being very “fun” for anyone involved and typically are categorized in a negative way. THIS is why Student-Led Conferences with Standards-Based Portfolios have become a priority in our classroom. We, like many educators, had no idea there was any other way to have a conference until we visited another school in our state. Once we knew there was a more positive and effective way to share student growth and progress- there was no turning back.

What is a Student-Led Conference with a Standards-Based Portfolio?

So by now, you are probably wondering, “What exactly is a Student-Led Conference with a Standards-Based Portfolio?” Let’s take a moment to clearly define each term:

Student-Led Conference: This term is self-explanatory. Instead of the traditional teacher & parent conference with no student present, the teacher steps aside as the child shares their academic progress, growth, strengths, and goals.

Standards-Based Portfolios: The portfolio is a student binder, folder, or notebook in which the student collects “products” or evidence of their learning. Each product is strategically placed in the portfolio as a reflection of student knowledge.

Creating Standards-Based Portfolios

Step 1: Set-Up
It is crucial to determine exactly what you want your students to keep track of from day one. In our second grade classroom we begin each year with the following sections; Goals, Growth, Math, ELA, and Accomplishments. We divide each section with tabs that are labeled.

Step 2: Standards/”I Can Statements”
A vital part of these portfolios is having the standards accessible to each student. They will use the standards as a resource to track their learning. As students “master” a skill, they may choose to highlight that standard. Each subject area should have its own section, as mentioned in Step 1, with the correlating standards, or I Can statements made from the standards, placed within the section.

Step 3: Products
Products are the evidence to show student progress towards mastering a particular standard. Teachers may have predetermined items such as a test, rubric, classwork, or project that all students will use as their product for a standard. Another option is to allow students to consider each assignment and determine if it should be added to their portfolio. In our classroom, we send home a Tuesday folder with graded papers that parents sign and return the following day. Then, the student places the papers in the appropriate section of the portfolio.

Step 4: Personalize
It is your classroom and you have the freedom to decide exactly what your portfolios will look like. They can be simple with only standards and subject areas products. You may choose to add other data from progress monitoring, district assessments, or classroom goals (books read, behavior, math facts mastered, handwriting samples, art projects, etc.) It is important that students take ownership of their portfolio and often this happens when portfolios are personalized with products that matter to them.

How to Host a Student-Led Conference

The way you host or set-up the conference is up to you but here are a few key points to consider:

  • Have students practice for their conference with peers.
  • Provide a map, checklist, or a digital slide to help lead the students throughout their conference.
  • Do not interfere! Even if the students seem a little off track- they NEED to do this independently.
  • Have families stop by and speak with you at the conclusion of the conference. This will allow you to answer questions, collect feedback, and share any other information.

Why We LOVE Student-Led Conferences with Standards-Based Portfolios

Every single student who steps foot into your classroom holds the power to achieve greatness. We have experienced our students achieving greatness through student-led conferences. Seeing timid students speak confidently about their learning, hearing students communicate with families in their home language, and the pure joy on the faces on our students throughout the conference- are just a few examples.

Do you want to experience the anticipation that comes the night before a student-led conference? Do you want to speak with excitement and enthusiasm about conferences? The most important question of all- Do you want to see your students shine? If so, then go for it! Embrace the greatness that is inside every student in your classroom!

Heather Busha and Felicia Turner are second-grade teachers at Albertville Primary School. Together they have over 15 years of teaching experience. For the past three years, they have taught in a collaborative classroom. During these years, Heather and Felicia have grown as educators and continue to learn from their classroom experiences. These “co-teachers” are passionate about building relationships with their students, creating engaging lessons, believing students can achieve greatness, and striving to be a better educator than they were the day before. Let Students Shine!!!!

Equitable Grading for English Learners

A few years ago, I began a position as Curriculum and Instruction Director for a relatively small school district. After about two years, I was also given ESL Coordinator duties. Though I had over 20 years in education, I had very little experience teaching or even learning about English Learners. Thus, I was extremely nervous at my very first meeting with experienced ESL Coordinators from my surrounding districts. I vividly remember my shaky introduction of “Hello, my name is Shannon Bogert, and I know very, very little about the teaching of English Learners. I hope you’ll share your knowledge.”

Fortunately, I reached out to those with expertise and immersed myself in as much learning as possible. Since our district serves approximately 444 English Learners, I felt it my duty to ensure that those students received the best education that they possibly could. Though ESL is a largely unfunded mandate and typically districts scrounge for resources to help meet the specific learning needs of English Learners; I however, am extremely fortunate to work for a superintendent who believes in designating resources to fund teachers, materials, and professional development. Similarly, our teachers are very devoted to and extremely receptive to meeting the needs of this unique group of learners.

So yes, we have a minimum of three ESL teachers in every school, four Lead ESL teachers who provide professional development and instructional coaching support, and we have compassionate general education teachers who provide warm and receptive environments.  Yet, we still struggle with the grading of English Learners.

Here’s what I know:

  1. English Larners should be graded according to their levels of English proficiency. All English Learners in the state of Alabama take the ACCESS assessment each year. The results of this assessment provide feedback regarding the student’s English proficiency.  The levels are as follows: Level 1 – Entering; Level 2 – Beginning; Level 3 – Developing; Level 4- Expanding; Level 5 – Bridging; and Level 6 – Reaching.
  2. Once a teacher knows a student’s level, he should design lessons based on a student’s Can-Do Descriptors and the content standards. Unfortunately, that may or may not happen.

You may not have familiarity with Can-Do Descriptors. Basically, they show classroom teachers what students are able to do based on their levels of English proficiency. You can find information at

Before we really pushed planning with Can-Do Descriptors, the job of accommodating assignments generally fell to the ESL teacher. That became a huge, often frustrating task. To be more efficient, we have spent a lot of time in professional developing, working with teachers on how to write lessons using the Can- Do Descriptors. In addition, part of our PLU required administrators to evaluate lesson plans looking for the descriptors.

So what does this look like in practice? In the eLearning Course, Teaching Your First ELs, G. de Jong, shares how to blend Alabama content using WIDA standards and a formative framework. He shares the following example: Let’s say I’m a 5th grade social studies teacher. My standard is “Explain effects of European exploration during the Age of Discovery upon European society and Native Americans, including the economic and cultural impact.”  The way an accommodated lesson may look is as follows:

Level 1: Match early explorers and Native Americans they impacted with illustrations and labels.

Level 2: Identify explorers and Native Americans depicted in illustrations and phrases.

Level 3: Compare/contrast different European countries and Native Americans using graphic organizers and sentences.

Level 4: Interpret effects of exploration on Native Americans using graphic organizers and texts.

Level 5/6: (Students “test-out” at 4.8) Detect trends or make generalizations based on historical events or people’s actions using grade-level text.

We expect grades for English Learners to be standards-based, but ONLY reflective of a student’s Can Do’s. Are we perfect? No, but we are really trying! We definitely have to employ some instructional coaching to help reluctant teachers in the process; but as long as it’s a focus and expectation, we generally see success.

Shannon Bogert has been an educator for more than 20 years, teaching multiple K-12 grade levels, as well as at the post-secondary level. Shannon currently serves as Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Pelham City Schools. Her interests include creating targeted instructional strategies for diverse learners, developing teacher capacity, and mentoring instructional leaders. Her greatest accomplishments, however, are her three adult children and being Nonna to the world’s most amazing four year old granddaughter.

What is more valuable to students: A Grade or Feedback?

In transparency, I have been out of the secondary classroom for over five years.  In 2012 I was given an opportunity to join the faculty at The University of Alabama as a Clinical Assistant Professor, and much of my work is now closely tied to teacher preparation. However, I still maintain many connections to the classroom and stay abreast of the issues.

One issue that I have taken special notice of is grading (and I’m very excited to see what ACGAL is accomplishing). When I was teaching advanced placement social sciences, I found it highly disconcerting when students were more concerned about the grade they would or did receive rather than what knowledge they would gain from the assignment. The philosophy my high school students demonstrated about their grades continues to manifest itself in the college student I teach now. I have witnessed a student grieve a grade because they received an A rather than an A+. This student went through the trouble of filing a grievance and dragged many into the formal process over two points! I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but, unfortunately, it is not. To me, it is disheartening – not the inconvenience of addressing a grievance but the evidence that many of my students’ struggle is for a better symbol of learning, not for more learning itself.

What is a grade? What does that grade tell the student? Most educators would agree that the grade tells the student the degree to which they have mastered the learning targets, objectives or standards set before them. But, in reality, what does that grade REALLY tell the student?  What, other than a number, tells them that they have learned and gained knowledge? In my opinion, not very much.

What will provide the student with more valuable information regarding their academic progress is feedback.  Feedback allows a student to know exactly what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do to improve and master the learning targets, objectives, or standards.  In the professional world, do individuals receive a numeric grade for meeting their goals? Of course not; we actually receive verbal or written feedback that provides us insight into our performance.  Should not our students receive the same opportunity to know where they stand in the continuum of meeting their academic goals?

Feedback is widely acknowledged as the crux of a learning process (Tee & Ahmed, 2014). Furthermore, feedback is critical in the development of effective learning (Black and William 1998; Carless et al. 2011; Feys, Anseel, and Wille 2011; Price, Handley, and Millar 2011). Feedback serves as a one-to-one conversation with students and can be a powerful tool to help students meet their goals.  When students are provided quality feedback, they will gain so much more than what a numerical grade can provide them.

There is much that can be discussed about the quality of the feedback provided to the students, but for this blog, I offer what, in my opinion, are three of the more important components of feedback.

  • When providing feedback use the OREO method. This analogy asserts that the two cookies are positive thoughts, while the filling indicates where the student needs improvement.  In other words, begin with positive comments, followed by the constructive comment (negatives), and end with other positive comments that encourage the student. All forms of feedback should lead the student to understand exactly what was correct about their work, what was incorrect or lacking about their work, and to what degree they met the expectations of the assignment. It is important to note that when offering feedback, it is critical for the students to have access to the rubric beforehand and that the feedback given to them is tied to the rubric components.  This allows them to correlate the feedback specifically to the rubric criteria and to be able to understand exactly what was correct or incorrect about their work, including to what degree they met the expectations.

Teachers have the responsibility to nurture a student’s learning and to provide feedback in such a manner that the student does not leave the classroom feeling defeated.  However, a constructive critique of the student’s work requires instructors to be deliberative in the comments provided.  This can be and should be done in such a manner that allows the student to gain or keep their confidence but at the same time realize shortcomings of their learning and how they may be improved.

  • Be specific and genuine in the feedback rather than generalizing.  Feedback is not “Job well done” or “You need more detail here.”  Feedback must be specific and concise to not only explain any shortcomings, but to also explain why that particular element is essential. The feedback should communicate to the student what they did well and what needs to happen differently for the student to improve. “You need more fact-based detail regarding how Roosevelt thought his first 100 days in office were successful for the county” provides more useful information to the student than “You need more detail.” Feedback should not be meaningless.  Students are quick to figure out when the feedback is insincere and over time they will disregard all feedback because they consider it to be meaningless.

Providing specific feedback reinforces the criterion that is being assessed and requires the student to return to their work and edit said work to meet the expected criteria. In doing so, they expand their knowledge and skills. Students are also encouraged by the specificity of the comments because they learn how to improve their work rather than merely feeling they missed the mark.

  • Provide feedback in a timely manner. Feedback should be provided to the student in a timely manner.  It does take some time to assess student work, so it might be a few days, but the quicker the feedback is provided the better for the student.  When feedback is given as quickly as possible after the submission of the assignment, the student tends to respond more positively because the experience is fresh in their mind.  If teachers wait too long to provide feedback, the moment is lost and the student will possibly not be able to connect the feedback with the action.

What is considered a timely manner?  That is a question that depends largely upon the personality and abilities of the class and the difficulty of the assignment. In my opinion, smaller (3-5 page assignments) should be returned to the student within 1-3 days, and larger assignments (5-10 pages) should be returned in 5-7 days. However, as I previously stated, this would be based on the personality and abilities of the students in the class.

Providing feedback may be daunting for teachers, and many may feel that it is too time-consuming.  It may feel like this at first, but teachers soon realize that providing feedback frees up time later when assignments do not drag on because the students have not mastered the standards, objectives, or targets. Also, teachers consistently providing feedback will notice a shift in the mindset (growth) of students because the students are implementing the knowledge and skills they have gained as a response to the feedback provided to them.

There are many more great ideas for providing feedback to students. One only has to Google educational feedback, academic feedback, or feedback for students to find dozens. Your approach to feedback might be different from mine; what is important, though, is committing to using feedback as a key part of turning our students’ obsession from more points to more learning.

Dr. Lisa H. Matherson, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Education at The University of Alabama. She works with teacher preparation on several levels. She received her B.S. and M.A. degrees in Secondary Education, Social Sciences, and her Ed.D. in Secondary Education, Curriculum and Instruction, from The University of Alabama.

When it comes to grading, do the right thing for students

Our first vlog post, contributed by SuperDega.

“When it comes to grading, do the right thing for students”

“Continue to challenge yourself, get outside the box, do things differently. Keep the students’ best interests in mind when you do that.”

Terry Roller is an Alabama State Assistant Superintendent on assignment as Chief Academic Officer for Montgomery City Schools. He is widely known for his effective use of social media in celebrating the good in education and educators. You can follow him on Twitter at @DegaSuper.