Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Using Student Work to Drive Decision-Making

“How did the simple act of identifying strengths first in your students’ writing make you feel today?”

This was the question I posed to the eight teachers sitting around the table, after our fourth grade professional learning community (PLC) team had spent half an hour analyzing (not scoring) student writing artifacts.

“I feel optimistic. Usually when I look at work, I am identifying and correcting mistakes. This time I was noticing the good things. This made me much more hopeful about the students’ writing. I actually felt like I could more easily figure out where to start with them.”

This was a powerful insight in the moment, and is also really important to remember when we engage in artifact analysis after an assessment experience. When we focus on the deficits first, sometimes they are all we see. When we begin with strength, we can celebrate our learners. We may choose to acknowledge their current strength formally during conferencing, through written feedback, or in any number of other ways. Furthermore, we have a clear starting point for our instruction that will build on skills and knowledge students already possess. Lastly, starting with strength allows teachers to feel optimistic and empowered. This approach to artifact analysis ensures we feel hopeful about our students from the very beginning right through to our instructional response.

Once we position ourselves to greet strength first, we can feel more equipped to examine student needs. This does not mean we spend time correcting errors, editing, or assigning points to an effort. Instead, it means we ask ourselves what students need tomorrow based on what we are seeing today. It means that we embrace assessment as future-focused; as informing our own next steps. This is quite a shift in assessment approach, and on the day we engaged in this work, the teachers involved felt that it was quite freeing to let go of numbers, points, and scores and focus on needs.

Here is how we engaged in our analysis of student writing. We began our time together with two simple steps:

  1. We individually examined our students’ work and identified strengths every time they appeared in a learner’s writing sample. We recorded each separate strength on its own sticky note. The purpose of recording it in this way was to capture the frequency of strengths in our collective student work. Some of the strengths included: strong descriptive language, engaging hook, or clear organization. We placed our sticky notes on the wall.
  2. We individually examined our students’ work and identified needs. For this task, teachers only needed to record a discrete need once, on a sticky note. Here, we were not capturing frequency; we were going to use these sticky notes to prioritize our next area of focus as a PLC. Some of the needs included “connection to a strong message,” “thorough details,” and “clarity of language.”

Once all our sticky notes were on the wall, we divided into two teams and began to work with the notes in two different ways. For the strengths, we grouped alike strengths together and then created a bar graph using the notes, to indicate most frequent strengths to least frequent. For the needs, we grouped alike needs together and then organized them in order of priority. This invited some deep conversation about how writing unfolds and which needs were foundational to other needs. As a group, we decided, for example, that encouraging students to increase the volume of their writing and their connection to their message was a priority. Without this focus, we would not get to strong organization, refined language, or language conventions (other needs we had identified in the student writing).

Next, we stepped back and acknowledged the most frequent strengths. We were surprised to see that organization was a strength for most students. However, this realization soon led to a hunch that students were able to write according to a formula (five paragraphs, three sentences per paragraph) but that this formula might be part of the reason we were seeing a lack of connection to personal message in the students’ writing. In effect, the strengths gave us additional insight about student needs and how we were going to respond.

Our next step was to return to our student work and identify which students needed to increase their volume of writing, which needed to work on a stronger message, and which students needed enrichment because they were already proficient in each of the other two priority areas. We grouped the students according to their needs and worked together to plan our instruction in the coming week to address each need.

We finished our meeting time by creating our next assessment writing prompt, so that we could check again to see whether students were still having trouble with volume and message. This follow-up common assessment would provide us with student work to guide our analysis the next time we came together. In the meantime, we planned to address student needs the very next day.

This approach to the analysis of assessment artifacts gets us to the “heart” of effective instruction without wasting any time. We can quickly celebrate successes and plan our course of action for the very next day of instruction. We can group our students according to their needs, and we end our time together by designing our next assessment tool. Most importantly, we retain our sense of hope and optimism for ourselves and our learners. Together, we empower each other to work with students in the most effective way possible, and there is no greater feeling than that!

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