When my 8th graders are brainstorming personal narrative topics after a few days of sharing my own narratives and topic ideas, I conference with them over which ideas from their life have the strongest "So What" (In the Middle, Nanci Atwell). The "so what" is the biggest significance or impact. They often don't know what the most significant topic from their lives might be. So I ask one question: What topic are you avoiding? What topic makes you uncomfortable? For me, the sign that I'm avoiding something because it makes me uncomfortable usually means that it's the topic I most need to confront. This is true for my writing. This is also true for my teaching.
The topic I most want to avoid in my teaching is analyzing data. It's a topic I can't avoid anymore.
The first part of why I probably avoid data analysis as much as possible is juvenile: it's math. I'm bad at math so I have an instant negative reaction when faced with doing math beyond figuring grades and paying bills. But analyzing data also makes me uncomfortable because it turns writing into something measurable, something numeric, something that writing simply isn't, at least not to me. Analyzing data on student writing and language skills feels cold to me. It's tampering with the magic. I remember sitting in an ICTE session on SBG one year with Allison, and she turned to me and said, "This conversation reminds me of the poem I just sent you." The poem? "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" by Walt Whitman (Poetry Foundation):
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Allison hit it right on the head for me with that one. Breaking writing down into data points felt too much like destroying the natural beauty of it. At my core, I don't believe that writing should be graded, ever. I realize that's not how school works and that part of my job is to attach a grade to writing, but at least 75% of the writing done in my classroom is never graded. I don't even read a lot of the non-graded stuff that my students write in their notebooks. It's practice. It's making them better. I know it is because I can see the monumental strides they make from the time they enter as seventh graders and leave as eighth graders.
But I don't have proof. I don't have the data to back that up aside from my readings of kids' writings.
So I need to confront the part of this I'm avoiding. I need to look at writing from a different perspective. I need to find out how I'm going to analyze the standards in their writings without destroying the magic of what writing means in my classroom.
I spent most of the afternoon yesterday in the Iowa Writing Project Curriculum Workshop talking to Kirstey about my next steps in doing this. How am I going to assess standards in a meaningful way? How am I going to keep low-stakes writing low-stakes while also using it to collect data about my students' progress on standards? How do I sort them according to need? What is mastery of writing? I don't think writing is ever mastered by anyone. I don't think it's possible. How do I decide they've mastered a writing or language skill when I don't even believe that mastery of language exists for anyone?
This won't be something that's as easy or natural for me as other areas of teaching, and that's a big part of why I have to do it. If I only stick with what's comfortable when assessing writing, I'm doing a disservice to myself and my students. Breaking the standards down and finding the actual evidence of progress in my students' writing will enable me to be a more reflective teacher in the long run, which is what I'm always striving for anyway. I spend hours reflecting on my teaching practice. Now I need the numbers to help guide me.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.