A Well-Lit Path to Better Writing Asssessment
Reviewed by Linda Biondi
I took a breath, bravely walked into my principal’s office, and said, “You have to buy this book!”
Celebrations and congratulations are in order for Lucy Calkins, Kelly Hohne, Audra Robb, and their colleagues from the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. Their brand new book, Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions, is one you will treasure and wonder how you ever lived without. It’s the cure for the busy teacher’s writing assessment woes.
Part 1 explains the assessment system and how to apply the data gleaned from on-demand and other student writing pieces to become a more effective teacher of literacy. It guides you through the process of developing a consistent and cohesive writing program in your grade level, across your school or throughout your district. Whether you are an experienced teacher, principal or instructional coach, you will find the book an invaluable resource for re-energizing your teaching of writing and raising student achievement.
The book is written with honesty and candor. On-demand performance assessments for each of the genres are provided along with rubrics, student friendly checklists, learning progressions for opinion/argument, information and narrative writing, and two sets of grade-level benchmark student writing samples for each genre.
This book was written collaboratively, and the use of this book in your school should be collaborative as well. Each teacher needs to have a personal copy to jot down reflections, notes, and “aha moments.” As I read the first section, my notes ranged from “Doing that now” to “Let’s give it a try.”
The authors caution you that in the beginning you may feel like hyperventilating as you review student work from various classrooms as a team. But remember you are working together to build a “community of common practice.” You are not only sharing the assessment workload, but building on and recognizing each teacher’s area of expertise. (My suggestion is to begin by discussing the shared assessment strategy with colleagues over tea or coffee and plenty of chocolate!)
Tools to nurture student ownership
Part II includes assessment tools that can be used across classrooms, districts and schools to assist in creating a culture where students take risks and develop ownership of their writing. The assessment tools as well as additional resources are available online for individual or classroom use.
At the beginning of each genre is a Learning Progression for Pre-K to 9th grade, aligned to Common Core State Standards. For example, in the narrative writing unit, the sections are broken down into overall writing, leads, transitions, endings, organization, elaboration, craft, spelling, punctuation and sentence structure.
Calkins’ progression guide shows what should be introduced and mastered at each grade level, allowing for age appropriate growth in each area. It is a trajectory of learning. If you teach in a school that requests “grades,” each section has a numerical point value and scoring guide.
The power of reflection
With the advent of the Common Core, there has been substantial growth in the use of reflection by teachers and by students. Reflection is needed for us to grow as learners and writers. Teachers who promote reflective classrooms ensure that students are fully engaged in their learning.
Therefore, I was delighted with the book’s self-assessment checklist for each grade level. The items were appropriate: “I” statements to help students analyze their writing and set goals. These reflective checklists remind me of a delicious blueberry pie (my personal favorite). They are inviting to use and linger in your mind long after you’ve tried them.
Good writing skills are a key to success in every subject. Writing Pathways: Performance Assessments and Learning Progressions also enables teachers in K-8 to work on classroom writing in a unified manner through regular reflection. Shaped by research drawn from thousands of schools, this book provides a road map for establishing and maintaining an exemplary writing program that uses student data to drive your instruction, leading to effective instruction and assessment.
A wonderful complement to the Units of Study
Writing Pathways is a guide and tool for teachers, teacher educators, curriculum developers, and educational leaders. I would suggest that schools of education use this book as part of their curriculum and guide future teachers in literacy to effectively use its ideas in their practice.
If you are already using the Heinemann series, Units of Study in Opinion/Argument, Information, and Narrative Writing, you are undoubtedly in luck. This book is a wonderful complement to that series, structured around the three major types of writing. What a timesaver in your busy teaching day! If you are not using the Units of Study, I recommend that you orient yourself with the series.
Editor’s note: Please see the comment below from Heinemann social media manager Brett Whitmarsh explaining who should consider purchasing this stand-alone edition of Writing Pathways.
That said, whatever writing curriculum you currently use, this book will help you meet the needs of your classroom writers, assisting you as you determine where your students are and how best to move them along in the most efficient and effective manner.
How can I write a conclusion that sums up this invaluable resource? I don’t even know how to begin. All I can do is repeat what I told my principal: “You have to buy this book!”
Linda Biondi is a fourth grade teacher at Pond Road Middle School in Robbinsville, NJ, and a long-time Morning Meeting practitioner. She’s also the recipient of several educational grants, a Teacher Consultant with the National Writing Project and a participant on the NJ Department of Education Teacher Advisory Panel. She recently attended the invitation-only ECET2 Conference in New Orleans to explore teacher leadership and collaboration.