Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole has been good company this month. If you’re in the process of reexamining your understanding of what it means to write or teach writing well, you will appreciate her wisdom. It runs deep.

I couldn’t help but reflect on this reality as I was reading, too: So often, our efforts to get beyond print in our writing classrooms and workshops are complicated by misguided understandings and applications of the standards we’re mandated to pursue with writers, the way we assess and report on those findings, and how we use the curricular resources that those in our system have committed to using. We sacrifice much on the altar of fidelity in service to a sort of hyper-alignment that always–always in my experience–undermines progress and even performance.

Many in my small world devote a ton of time to “unwrapping” or “unpacking” or “breaking apart” standards, but I wonder: Do we really spend enough time coming to know the whole of them and their relationship to one another?

This is important.

For instance, writing is oral–for all humans of all ages with widely diverse experiences–not just primary level writers. All writing is oral before it evolves into written words. How we leverage orality matters, and yet, we rarely speak about this unless we teach preK-2. We also spend much less time appreciating and crafting curricula that realizes the full power of our speaking and listening standards when we’re called to design curricula or analyze and improve our instructional practices.

How do you situate those standards within your writing units and lesson? Why are you making that choice? Where do they work to their fullest potential?

These are gorgeous and rewarding conversations. This is stuff worth studying and paying attention to. Let’s get intentional here.

Here’s the thing: Quality standards function much like a mosaic. Busting that mosaic into granular bits has its uses, I suppose. I’ve facilitated the unwrapping of every ELA standard that’s made its way into New York State for the last twentyish years and a few other sets of standards too, so please don’t think I’m criticizing YOU if you did this or still do this. I did this, and sometimes, I still do this.

So much context is often lost this way, and experience has taught me that that context is essential to the growth of the writers we serve.

And anyway, all of that unwrapping feels quite a bit like teacher-proofing most of the time. I think most are capable of teasing out content and skills without diagramming dozens of sentences. If I did this to you, I apologize. If I do it in the future, know that I have good reasons, and you need to call me out if I fail to share them when I do. We need to get more thoughtful here.

But I digress.

Over the years, I’ve begun learning more and more about the critical role that conceptual learning, making, and writing plays inside of spaces where writers thrive–and where they also progress. I’ve also learned much about the influence of conceptual learning, making, and writing inside of professional learning experiences, too.

I’ve learned that when the pedagogical underpinnings of our curricula, instruction, and assessment decisions are inconsistent, teachers and writers suffer for that. This is true for those who facilitate learning in K-12 classrooms with young learners. It ‘s also true for those of us who facilitate professional learning for educators, too.

I will continue to wonder how we might begin to honor the whole of the writers we serve, the compositions they create, and who we are within the profession. Writing is bigger than print, and writers need to know how to use multiple modes of expression if they really intend to be of influence in this world. Agility matters. Static curricula doesn’t serve. We need it to be boundless because this world is constantly shape-shifting, and the people we serve are, too.

So, how do we facilitate professional learning rather than “leading” literacy PD? And how do we begin facilitating multimodal writing workshops where misguided perspectives about standards, assessment, grading, and reporting don’t get in the way of honoring the whole of the writers we serve and the compositions they create?

These are a handful of shifts that seem to help. And I’m still learning here, so come yell at me if  you want to. I’m a good listener.

Define a Shared Vision

I’ve written about shared visioning work before, and you’ll find another protocol just for your use right here. Once upon a time, a mentor of my own once reminded me that when systems and individuals operate without vision, every crisis, mandate, rule, and requirement will fundamentally change who they are and often, in ways that alienate them from their beliefs and their values. When we create a shared vision with the writers we serve and the colleagues we collaborate with, we are more likely to mine mandates and even crises for the opportunities they offer. We learn how to leverage pieces of them in service to our greater vision. We learn how to mitigate the damage they might do to that greater vision, too.

Varied responses to the question: Our report card should...

Synthesize Your Standards

Rather than unwrapping, unpacking, or breaking standards apart early in your curriculum or assessment design process, appreciate, analyze, and interpret the whole of the mosaic first. Consider design. Relationships. Context. Define the intentions behind the standards. Get clear about the choices available and the intended and unintended consequences of pursuing some rather than others. Use it to it’s most beautiful potential rather than reducing it to lists of content and skills that “must” be taught somewhere.

Sticky notes on a chart.

Deepen Conceptual Understandings

Rather than hyper-focusing on content and skills or forcing the teachers you serve on a straight march through whatever program you purchased, inspire them to tease out critical concepts. Everywhere.

Where do you notice concepts at work inside of the world that writers are navigating? Where do you notice them at work inside of your curriculum resources? Your standards? What trends are you noticing? Which concepts are most important? How might you support learning that transfers rather than teaching with fidelity?

So many in my world are celebrating the release of Learning that Transfers: Designing Curriculum for a Changing World–including John Hattie, who wrote the forward. Here, Julie Stern, Trevor Aleo, Kayla Duncan, and Krista Ferraro introduce elegant and game-changing perspectives, practices, and frameworks that enable educators in any role to do far more meaningful, complex, and rewarding work when it comes to curriculum creation and teaching for transfer.

Invite Multimodal Composition

When writers are invited to use modes of expression other than written words to MAKE compositions, they rapidly realize that each of those modes affords them something as a thinker, writer, and creator that others alone do not. When we reduce composition to the production of written words, we encourage the development of incomplete drafts. We also fail to honor the whole of the writer, the full complexity of their ideas, and their potential to reach and inform and move audiences by creating their most compelling work.

When writers are invited to use modes of expression other than written words to plan and iterate upon those compositions as they move through the process, they are much more willing to choose and develop their most sophisticated ideas, too. Print doesn’t create a barrier.

Children drawing on a table and adding sticky notes to their plans.

Document Learning

Assess writers’ progress toward distinct learning targets. Document that progress. Record it. Earlier this week, I shared what this might look like in a writing classroom or workshop that inspires multimodal composition. Below, I’ve shared that layered storyboard again. The tasks are defined in images 2 and 3. Do you see how we might assess progress toward standards based learning targets? Do you see how we might use multimodality to make a far more accurate assessment, too? You can click on the images to enlarge, if you’d like.

Assessing learning targets is different than marking or grading writing. These data are easily scooped from writing in process, by looking over a writers’ shoulder as they compose or during conferences. We use what we discover to document learning and inform our practice, and we don’t need to grind our workshop to a halt in order to do that. We also don’t need to tote piles of papers home or sit on our screens all weekend in order to make these meaningful assessments.

I wonder, thought: How might we assess for learning transfer as well? I’m just beginning to learn more about this, thanks to Julie, Trevor, Kayla, and Krista.

If you’re in my circle here, know I’m very grateful for you.

Embrace Standards Based Assessment and Grading

Finally, if your system hasn’t made a commitment to standards based grading, this doesn’t mean that you can’t begin establishing this culture inside of your own classroom or workshop. Grades are detrimental to the growth of writers. There is nothing in the research that defines the best practices of our field that suggests otherwise. Not a thing. And here’s what I know from a whole bunch of experience: Making writing will not move writers forward if the curricular, assessment, and reporting decisions we’re making are not in alignment with that pedagogy.

Making writing isn’t about fun, cute, or finessing “struggling” writers.

If that’s how it’s being offered to you, please know that there is much to learn and work to do here. Let’s talk more.



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