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Finish the Year Strong By Analyzing Student Writing

May 20, 2015 / by Carolyn Henderson

Setting aside time to discuss student writing can be hugely informative...and a lot of fun! Setting aside time to discuss student writing can be hugely informative...and a lot of fun!

Every May, I find myself in need of a kickstart....a little shot of something to help me finish the school year strong and to carry the momentum of the mistakes I’ve made and the successes I’ve had into the fall.  Finally, after over a decade of working in schools, I’ve figured out what that kickstart needs to be or least what it should involve.

It needs to involve collaboration, reflection, and a changes in practice that are both quick wins that will affect students before school lets out in June and long term understandings that will affect students to come.  Analyzing student work with a really smart group of peers is the perfect combination of all those things.

And since none of us wants to reinvent the wheel (especially in May) here’s everything you need to know to replicate my favorite student work analysis protocol.  While I most recently used this protocol with network 9th and 10th grade history teachers to look at common DBQ essays, the beauty of it is that with a few tweaks it can be used across grade levels and disciplines.

Who’s involved?  

You’ll need to decide who the participants will be (is it an entire science department that wants to evaluate student STEAM fair projects in hopes of finding a way to take next year’s entries up a notch or maybe it’s a cluster of primary school teachers wondering what proficient narrative writing should look like at each grade level?)

You’ll also need a facilitator or two, someone who is willing to do some prep work and to lead the conversation.  This facilitator can really be anyone (a teacher, a coach, an administrator, an outside expert) who has deep content knowledge.

What’s needed to begin?

  • Dedicated time.  Much like planning and implementing a strong lesson, you might need more time to prep than you do to actually meet and analyze the student work.
  • A common rubric that doesn’t have too many score bands and is both user friendly enough that it doesn’t take 10 minutes to read, but detailed enough that the information it provides is valuable.  Here’s a sample of the argument scoring guide we created for DBQ essays.
  • A norming packet.  This packet is a collection of samples of student work  (ideally submitted by teachers ahead of time) at different proficiency levels.  The best norming packets also include explanations like this one that we used for DBQ’s about the United States’ War with Mexico.

DBQ Day 2015-2How does it work?

Before the meeting

  1. Participants submit student work samples to facilitators (these may be a class set or just a few examples)
  2. Facilitators comb through the student work to find examples for each scoring guide level and then write score descriptions.  Many of the best conversations later on are around those tricky essays that don’t fit easily into the middle score bands so it has seemed more important to have more of those and less of the really low and really high ones
  3. Facilitators choose what order the essays will be presented in (sometimes it makes sense to start with a clear cut one, sometimes it doesn’t)

During the meeting

  1. The scoring guide (we tend to like that term more than rubric) is reviewed.  During this time, it’s really important to make sure everyone can define the key terms used on it, as well as articulate the difference between score bands.  Frequently, it’s also important to mention that all categories may not be created equally.  For instance, we often place more weight on a student’s ability to elaborate upon evidence than we do on his or her ability to spell.
  2. Participants read the selected sample and prepare to answer 3 guiding questions:
    1. What did the student do well?
    2. What needs work?
    3. What score would you give it?
  3. The facilitator then leads a conversation addressing the guiding questions in the above order because beginning by asking what the student did well sets a tone that focuses on student growth and allows the group to celebrate what’s already been accomplished.  Ending with the sharing of each individual’s score also sets a more collaborative tone.  If there’s time, it’s often helpful to ask what 1 or 2 pieces of advice could be given to the student to improve his or her piece.

Why do this?

Time spent analyzing student work is worth it because it...

  • promotes consistent and clear expectations across the board
  • sets the foundation for horizontal and vertical alignment
  • provides a forum for diagnosing student knowledge gaps and sharing ideas about how to fill them
  • informs future planning--gaining such a nuanced understanding of what the end goal should look like, let’s us plan better for the new group of students that we get a fresh start with in September

How often do you analyze student work with your colleagues? 

Topics: Professional Learning, Social Studies, History, Writing

Carolyn Henderson

Written by Carolyn Henderson

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