Last week, students in my school district sat down to complete their quarterly writing benchmark. All of the students in grades 1-5 had the same prompt: Write a story about your best day at school. In my first grade world, this was a struggle because it was the first time that students had experienced a formal writing test. This process was brutal–for the students and for me–because I saw the kids struggling and I was “not allowed” to help them. As I thought about the circumstance more and more, I feel that my students were not prepared for the “test”, but for the “experience” as well.
Since I am new to 1st grade this year, I have learned that students have to be coached on how to do certain things. After have taught 2nd grade for the last several years, I noticed that 2nd graders are exposed to more procedures–assessments being one of them. After researching the struggle I am having, I came across this article on Edutopia entitled “Low-Stakes Writing: Writing to Learn, Not Learning to Write”.
There are 5 strategies for implementing low-stakes writing within classrooms. Strategy 1: Grade Low-Stakes Writing Simply. In my district, K-2 grades are based on the standard, meaning that we do not give a “letter grade”. We give levels to determine mastery of skills. With that being said, I would say that most of my students are not focused on “getting good grades” because they do not understand the concept of grades yet. A simple check, sticker, or smiley face is sufficient to my students. Strategy 2: Have Students Share Their Writing. This is something that I can improve on. I often overlook sharing because I am trying to stick to my daily schedule as much as possible. Sharing in class would allow students to see their writing as a meaningful assignment, as well as allow students who may have a harder time writing hear some stories to gain insight. Strategy 3: Differentiate Learning Through Group Work. In my classroom, most of the learning that students are engaged in is through small groups. This way, students are learning skills on the level that is best for them. Within my small groups, I need to focus on writing as a subject, not writing to answer a question. With the implementation of mClass, teachers have gone away from teaching writing as a separate subject and just focus on writing the answer to a comprehension question (because that is how the students are assessed). By teaching writing as a separate subject, students are encouraged to use their imagination to create something they are proud of. Strategy 4: Use Challenge Questions Instead of Traditional Feedback. I would use this strategy during Writer’s Workshop by getting students to think deeper about their writing and to elaborate more. Later in the year, I would even try to pair with a 4th or 5th grade teacher to see if their students would be interested in reviewing my student’s writing by working in pairs. It is important for students to understand that it is helpful to get feedback and advice from their peers, and this would be a great way to bridge that gap. (Of course students on both sides would need appropriate coaching in order for this to happen, but I think it would be a wonderful opportunity.) Strategy 5: Create Open Questions. Asking open-ended questions is an easy way for students to jump start their thinking. Instead of doing our traditional morning work, I am planning on having my students answer a journal topic. This may be challenging because some of my students are struggling readers and may not be able to read the topic, however it is important that even they try their best! I will also give students a time to share their journal during our Morning Meeting.
By implementing a few of these low-stakes writing strategies, I am hoping that students have a more positive experience with our next writing benchmark in January.