Looking at Student Work

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to work with an enthusiastic group of elementary school teachers. Over the course of the week we engaged in collegial discourse, put new learning to practice in the classroom, and engaged in self-reflection. As the facilitator, I had a chance to try out new ideas to support adult learning. As I planned for this training I spent a lot of time thinking about entry points for my adult learners. Without knowing them, I needed to make some decisions about what activities would allow them access to new strategies that they could apply and try out right away.

One activity I was excited to try with the group was looking at student work together. My goal was to find a protocol that was “just right” for guiding the process. There are so many wonderful protocols available for looking at student work, I struggled to find the "right one." In the end, I selected the Rounds Protocol. I had never used it before but it felt familiar to me. It reminded me of a “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine, which felt like a good entry point. So, I thought I would try it out with the group.

The Rounds protocol is based off of Pat Carini’s work, The Descriptive Review of a Child. In essence, the protocol guides the group through three passes (or rounds) of examining a piece of student work. During the first round, participants describe specific observations, or things they notice, while examining the work. In the second round, the group makes generalizations about what the student can do based on the first round of observations. Finally, in round three, the group brainstorms possible next steps for instruction.

I facilitated the protocol for the 7 participants (two 1st grade teachers, two 2nd grade teachers, a Pre-kindergarten teacher, a learning support teacher, and an EAL teacher). One of the first grade teachers shared a piece of student writing with group for the activity. She chose the piece of writing because after looking at the student’s work earlier that morning, she felt stuck about what her next teaching move might be with this student.

We jumped into the protocol. Each member of the group looked at the student work. This part didn’t take very long as the writing was a very short piece. The protocol begins with the teacher sharing some context about the lesson. In this case, the students were learning about the classroom word wall and were tasked with choosing words from the word wall to create a story. Once a context was established for this piece of writing, the group had an opportunity to clarify any questions they might have before digging into an analysis of the work. After several questions were posed the group had time to read through the work again.

At this point, I will admit, I wondered how this activity was going to play out. I wasn’t 100% sure what the student wrote, the piece was very short, and I saw a look of bewilderment on the presenter’s face as well as on each participant’s face. We had a little over an hour scheduled for this activity and I felt panic rising from deep within my gut. Will we be able to talk about this piece of writing for an hour?

I knew I had to trust the process. Before we began round 1, I asked the teacher to read the work out loud to us, knowing that most teachers in the early grades have students read their writing to the teacher when they turn it in. I was hoping this was the case because I really couldn’t figure out what the student had written beyond a few words. Here is what the teacher said, “Look at the camel going in the desert with the friends...and she wasn’t sure about the rest of the words.” There was an audible “exhale” from the group. “Ahh….now I see!” The teacher who shared the student work was asked to sit back, listen and take notes while the rest of us began examining the work. With that, we began round one.

The first round started off with uncertainty. There were awkward silences and each member of the group glued his/her eyes to their copy of the student writing, avoiding all eye contact with me as I anxiously awaited the first response from the group. Finally, someone said, “I notice that the letters are separated by spaces within some of the words. For example, look at the word with. It is written, wi th.” I let out a big sigh of relief and maybe, with a little too much enthusiasm, celebrated our first observation and wrote it down on our chart paper. “That’s great. What else do you notice in this piece of writing?” Observations began to flow. “The student writes using both upper and lower case letters,” said a second grade teacher. “The student spelled, ‘at’ correctly,” said another teacher with more confidence. I noticed that the student wrote ‘de’ for ‘the.’ And the observations continued.

The mood in the room had changed from uncertainty to excitement as we began round two. It was time to make some generalizations about what this student could do as a writer. I love round two because the protocol sets you up to take a strengths-based approach to examining student work. It is easy to look at students' work and quickly become overwhelmed by what the student can’t do. When you adopt the mindset of looking for what a student CAN do, you learn more about the student as a writer. The group had seamlessly shifted into a collaborative brainstorming session. “This student understands directionality- the student knows letters in words are written from left to right.” Another teacher said, “The student uses initial sounds and ending sounds to write words.” The group also decided that the student can communicate ideas clearly, stays on topic, has good background knowledge, and can correctly use nouns, verbs, and adjectives in her writing.

It was time for round three. We were ready to brainstorm ideas for the teacher about her next teaching moves with this student. The group had lots of great ideas such as teaching the student how to use appropriate spacing of letters, teaching the student what to do when you are writing a word and run out of space on your paper, and teaching the student when to use capital vs lowercase letters.

As we closed out the protocol, the teacher who brought this piece of student work was invited to rejoin the group and was given a chance to reflect on what she learned from the process. Her face was beaming. She said she brought this piece of work to the group because she was really unsure about what to do next. In fact, just like all of us at the beginning of the activity, she saw a piece of student writing that left her feeling overwhelmed and feeling like the student needed a lot of support. However, after participating in this process her mindset had completely changed. Now, she said that she realized her student had many strengths as a writer and the next teacher moves were really quite easy- the student needed to learn some basic mechanics of writing. The teacher said, “this process was a great in the sense that collectively we analyzed the student’s piece of writing starting from the positives or strengths and the action plan became as natural as it could be. This process was a great aha moment.”

The Rounds Protocol is a great entry point for looking at student work. The protocol is easy to follow and lends itself nicely to collaborative brainstorming. The experience of looking at student work from a strengths-based approach led to not only positivity and enthusiasm from the group, but I also think we were able to brainstorm more effective teaching points to support the teacher who shared the work. So what are you waiting for? Give it a try!

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