The 7-Minute Debrief

With eight weeks complete in this school year, I can officially declare writing workshop as the favorite time of the day for most of the students. Lately, it seems like this chunk of time is when our class bonds the most. I’m blessed to have a class of passionate and creative writers this year.

For many of us, the best moment of writing workshop is when it ends.  In other words, the last few minutes of workshop time when my students and I gather on the carpet for what we call “workshop debriefing.” This 5-10 minute conversation between writers is a quick way to build relationships as a writing community. I try to keep this debriefing focused on the writing product as well as the writing process. I usually facilitate our debriefing with three questions:

  • What went well today?
  • What are you heading as a writer next?
  • What did you work on today that we can learn from?

I view this as an opportunity to teach and to assess. I always look forward to this discussion because it provides me with teaching points for the coming days. Plus, the students and I get to hear what everyone is working on. I am noticing that my students are starting to become very helpful to one another as they are always willing to offer feedback.

This past Wednesday was like any other day. It was the end of writing workshop, and my stomach was growling as lunchtime was just a few moments away. I started out the debriefing session by asking each writer to share where they are in their writing process. As they made their way around the circle, I noticed that I had stopped writing down teaching points and “next steps” on my Status Of The Class page.  Instead, I was amazed at how these 10 and 11-year old students were speaking to one another.  They were talking like…writers.

I quickly started jotting down what these young authors were saying.  Here is a sample of what I observed:

  • Josh shared that he was planning out a story with lots of suspense. He had a basic idea for a plot, but he needed to fill in some plot holes.  Nathaniel, who is Josh’s peer editor, suggested looking at Jon Scieszka’s Guys Read: Thriller anthology.  Another boy ran over to his desk and pulled out Ralph Fletcher’s Guy Write: What Every Guy Writer Needs To Know and gave it to Josh.
  • Abby shared that she was working on some poetry as she held up a few mentor texts I had suggested including poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes.
  • Chris announced that he had started writing the third episode of “Monkey Attack.”  This announcement was met with a few fist pumps and shouts of “Finally!” from about half of the class. “Looks like you have some fans, Chris,” I said as he shyly chuckled.
  • Hannah shared that she started writing workshop with nothing to write about, so she used Rory’s Story Cubes for some inspiration.  Three other students asked if they could borrow those tomorrow.
  • Ella mentioned how she was mulling over the idea of starting a graphic novel about ferrets.  I steered her towards a book in our classroom library that was about how to design comics, paying particular attention to the pages about when to use wide-angles and close ups.
  • Ahmed, a very reluctant writer, explained how he was writing a script for a book trailer he was going to make for a story he was creating.  A few students offered him help for writing the draft, as they had just finished creating a book trailer themselves.
  • Donya announced that she had finished typing up her biography of Margaret Peterson Haddix, and was starting a poem inspired by the book RUMP: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin by Liesl Shurtliff.

All this occurred in about seven minutes. What I had just witnessed was a community of writers helping each other, offering feedback, giving advice, sharing their failures, planning out their writing and asking questions.  For a few moments in the day, these young writers were cherishing this time to share, comment and connect.  Even some of my most reluctant writers had found a topic, audience or genre to pursue.  These seven minutes were special to me because I saw the power of our writing culture.  The writing customs, routines and behaviors we’d worked so hard to develop were on full display.  This group of writers had connected around an appreciation for the writing process.  Yet, none of these young writers had noticed recess had started 4 minutes ago.

Build a Positive Culture with Assessment

I think one of the things that is often overlooked when it comes to establishing a positive and supportive culture in our classrooms is assessment. As teachers, we can sometimes feel as if we have no control over it. I’ll admit that I know I have felt like this before in the face of common assessments and standardized tests. But we have more control than we think, and we need to work to reclaim not only the term but also the use of assessment in our classrooms.

I first learned about the idea of construct and consequential validity when I read Beyond Standardized Truth by Scott Filkins. In this book, Filkins explores both ideas of validity, and argues that “What happens to the student as a result of taking a test (including accounting for the instructional time devoted to participating in the assessment) is as central to the test’s educational validity as the quality of its construction” (19). He breaks this down further by posing a set of questions to help differentiate between the two. One of the questions that I think is most important is this: “Is the student in any way harmed by the assessment?” (19)  

As teachers, we spend a lot of time thinking about the validity of the construction of our assessments. We ask ourselves, Does this measure what we want it to? We think about whether or not the items are inclusive and that they honor students’ identities in order to reduce bias. We ask whether or not the assessment matches our learning targets and whether or not it is of appropriate difficulty, but we rarely ask what our assessments do to the learning environment. Will our assessment leave students feeling empowered or defeated? Will they feel as if we have prepared them along the way, or will the expectations of our assessment surprise them and damage their sense of self-efficacy, motivation to continue,  and trust toward us? 

Even if just one student’s motivation is negatively impacted by our assessment, our entire learning environment suffers. Sometimes we are quick to acknowledge this about external assessments like the ACT or SAT when we see students’ reactions as they receive their scores, but we sometimes avoid their reactions when they receive their results from our own assessments. And then there are even those teachers who pride themselves on how difficult an assessment was, rather than celebrating how many students succeeded.

Regardless of the norms that we establish or the countless times that we reiterate to the class that we “care” and are there to “support them,” it all means nothing if the way we assess them feels like a kick in the stomach or a slap in the face.

Rick Stiggins reiterates a similar point as Filkins in The Perfect Assessment System, where he argues for educators to rethink how, when, and why they assess in their classrooms. And this line stopped me hard: “You might show me the most valid and reliable assessment in the world, but if the results it generates lead students to give up in hopelessness, it may not be a high-quality assessment, for the simple reason that it may do far more harm than good” (84).

He continues later by writing that “assessment FOR learning” is important because “A student’s emotional response to assessment results will determine what that student decides to do about those results: keep working, or give up” (85).

Stiggins mentions that students who seem to always encounter failure in their assessments, can begin to think along these lines:

“This hurts; I’m not safe here”

“I can’t do this either”

“Why is it always about what I can’t do?”

“Feedback hurts me—scares me”

And these responses are in direct contrast to the type of mindset we want to cultivate in students. Those who develop positive views of themselves begin to want more success and embrace feedback, while those who experience negative consequences begin a downward spiral that can affect the rest of their educational experience. 

If we want students to take risks in their thinking, to challenge themselves, to try something on, we have to create spaces where they can try again. We have to embrace the messiness, the idea that first attempts aren’t always right. We can prove to our classes that we will support students with assessment, using our informed practice to help all kids learn.

Brookhart and Moss argue in Learning Targets that learning targets help develop students who are “assessment-capable” or “students who regulate their own learning” (79). And if we want students to really be capable of embracing and using assessments and feedback, we have to be mindful of the messages that our assignments send to students. If they are one-shot assignments, then we tell students that we don’t value mistakes or the learning process. We expect them to get it within one opportunity, something that anyone who has ever learned anything knows is not the case.

We also cannot forget that very real reality that assessments–and I use the term broadly here to include many kinds, including essays, performances, tests–are experiences for students. They do not just do these things; rather, they do these things under particular conditions and experience effects afterward. There is a direct connection to an emotional state of mind and well being that we cannot separate and we have to think long and hard about.

We must also think about how this contributes to the culture of our classroom. Do we want students who value their grades or who value learning? What do our assessments reveal at the end? This can also lead into helping students develop different types of goals. Sometimes students buy into the idea that performance goals matter more than mastery goals. As Moss and Brookhart also mention that students that choose performance goals (like getting an A on a test) are “more extrinsically motivated and rely on rewards or praise from others” (67). We can work to help students become interested in mastery goals, who want to “increase their competence,” put in effort over longer periods of time, and “expect to receive feedback on how well they are doing and how to improve” (68). The latter is the culture around goals that I would want in my classroom. 

I end with a final reminder that we have students in our classrooms who have not felt successful in very long time, if ever at all. With the start of the year upon us, I ask us all to think about the ways we can assess students to inform instruction but to also support and build students’ confidence and winning streaks. We can ask how our assessment will impact students’ motivation, and we can actively work to develop an assessment culture where everyone learns and thrives.