Mark Overmeyer Answers Your Questions about Assessment!

Today Mark Overmeyer, author of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop stops by to answer your questions!

Do you have any suggestions on how to maintain balance with conventions and other areas of writing based on assessments? I know focusing too heavily on conventions will negatively affect their other areas of writing (even if they are already demonstrating strengths in the other areas), but I would also like for them to get a better grasp on the conventions expectations for 7th grade.

This is a very good, and important, question.

Yes, you are correct: it is true that focusing too heavily on conventions can negatively impact writing performance. Ironically, a complete focus on teaching grammar out of context can actually cause students to decrease their achievement in grammar and in writing quality.

More information about the research on grammar instruction can be found in several sources, including George Hillocks’ Teaching Writing As Reflective Practice: Integrating Theories and Constance Weaver’s Teaching Grammar in Context.
You are in luck, however.

There are two great resources that are practical and full of ideas you can implement right away: Mechanically Inclined: Building Grammar, Usage, and Style into Writer’s Workshop and Everyday Editing by Jeff Anderson. Jeff has created classroom-tested, grammar-in-context ideas for upper elementary, middle, and high school students. The best part? The lessons and ideas are organized so that you can easily access which skill you want students to work on (e.g., sentence fragment corrections, subject verb agreement, correct use of commas, correct use of capitalization, etc.).

I know many teachers who have used Jeff’s ideas, and I have used them myself. Jeff believes we can help our students to become better writers while they internalize conventions if we ask them to notice what is right about well crafted sentences. Instead of using sentence correction exercises, Jeff suggests we display well-written sentences that feature a skill we want students to work on, and then ask the students what they notice about the craft and the mechanics that make the sentence correct. It is an inquiry based approach to teaching grammar (rather than an error-correction approach), and it works.

 

I will be moving from 40-some odd students this year to close to 120 next year. What is your advice for managing writing assessment for a group this large? (in middle school).

 
This is such a challenge. You have so much to think about when you teach this many students, and it is so easy to become overwhelmed.

My first piece of advice is to carefully plan your instruction with some built in places for you to read short samples of student work for very specific purposes.
Let me try to explain what I mean by walking through a suggested framework based on a specific unit of study.

I will choose personal narrative as a genre study just because it is so common across grade levels. If this explanation does not provide enough specific suggestions for your context, do not hesitate to let me know and I will walk through a different genre.

When I teach any genre, I want to know first if student is able to make meaning in this genre. (I owe a tremendous debt to Carl Anderson and his book Assessing Writers for many of the ideas that follow).

So, if I want to know if students can make meaning in the genre of personal narrative, I will ask them to respond to a series of quick writes that require them to narrate and describe situations they have experienced:

 

  • Tell about a time you were afraid (or happy, or proud, or…)
  • Describe your favorite place (or food, or season, or holiday, or video game, or sport…)

These are just ideas- anything that you can use to motivate students to write for five or ten minutes will work. When you collect these short samples, you can begin to see if students can make meaning in this genre – we must narrate and describe (among other things) when we tell stories about our lives, so I want to know very early on if students can do the work of writers who create personal narratives.

I would also expose students early on to mentor texts representative of the genre study. The quick writes provide a kind of practice in the parts of the genre, while a study of mentor texts provides an opportunity to provide clarity about what students will be writing. For more specific guidance on using mentor texts in a genre study, see Katie Wood Ray’s Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop, and for using mentor texts in nonfiction writing, see Dorfman and Cappelli’s Nonfiction Mentor Texts: Teaching Informational Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-8 – my new favorite book.

So the beginning of each unit involves quick writes, which can be assessed quite easily. I can also assess students as they study mentor texts, particularly if I ask them to try their hand at mimicking the crafts they notice in these texts.

These short writing pieces will be worth only a few points each, but they will allow me to predict the future success of the unit.

Students can begin to draft longer pieces as they develop an awareness of the features of the genre. You can develop a list of these features together based on what you notice as you read like writers.

As soon as students begin drafting, you are in great danger of becoming overwhelmed by the paper load. My advice is to read each draft for very specific purposes, and to ask students to revise drafts based on what you notice they need to work on. Keep a positive attitude by first admiring what they are doing well, and then looking for teaching points. When you discover teaching points all students can benefit from, then you have an idea for a mini lesson. When you discover teaching points a few students can benefit from, you have ideas for small group work or you have conference topics.

One typical reason I read early drafts is to just establish if students understand the structure or organization of the genre. In keeping with personal narrative example, I first read drafts to see if they can keep ideas focused while using a narrative flow. If they get stuck in describing every insignificant detail, I can work with them on keeping the narrative moving. If they jump from event to event and develop a list-like story, then I can work with them on slowing down the moment.

The last section of my book provides some more detail about this topic of reading student writing for singular purposes.

I hope this provides you with enough to think about… please let me know if it helps!

Visit the other stops on Mark’s blog tour:
June 23: http://creativeliteracy.blogspot.com
June 29: http://teachingthatsticks.blogspot.com
July 1: http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com

And, you can enter a contest!
Contest details
In his new book Mark discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick, piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us: Formative Assessment in the Writing Workshop . Submit your entries by July 15 to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

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2 Responses

  1. Re: increasing the teacher workload from 40-120. One idea that has worked wonders for me is to use the Microsoft Word “Replace” function to program in eighty or so canned responses with a quick teaching tool to place in bubble comments on students’ word processing docs.

    They really read these comments, as they have to respond/revise accordingly. Of course, I also add on personalized comments. But this is a time-saver and effective. See what you think! http://penningtonpublishing.com/blog/grammar_mechanics/how-to-save-time-grading-essays/

  2. [...] Mulhern, host of The Reading Zone, posted a question from one of her readers about how to manage writing assessment with a large [...]

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