Empowering Writers Through Graphs and Reflection
We teachers were all students at some point, and I like to think that I remember quite well what it was like. Nevertheless, sometimes it helps to be reminded. My most recent reminder came in agility class. Every Thursday night, my Australian Kelpie and I head into the ring, me for lessons on handling, her for practice shooting through tunnels, cutting through weaves, bounding over jumps and through hoops. Our teacher is excellent, an award-winning, internationally recognized handler who precisely explains concepts and troubleshoots issues, offering well-deserved praise. My sweet little dog and I have a great time, and lately I’ve been feeling that we’re decently good. True, she’s terrified of thunder and thus struggles with the teeter, and like some human students, she definitely has attention issues, being liable to sprint off course if an oh-so-exciting truck goes by outside. Still, I’m proud of how much we’ve progressed.
Or at least I was…until a pair of new students joined our class: Donna and her dog Albert, a disgustingly cute Corgi. The teacher just raves about them. Albert is so precious. Donna, when are you going to trials? Look how fast he is on those short legs. Go to trials. He’ll be ready. I’ll tell it like it is. I’m jealous. No, not just jealous. Sad. Hurt. Demoralized. Suddenly feeling that all our efforts are useless, that we’re unworthy of the teacher’s time.
Ok, granted, I’m being a bit melodramatic. But can you guess my point? Sometimes as teachers we get so excited about those students who display excellent potential, so motivated to push them and help them develop to their fullest, that perhaps we overlook some of the other students in the room, the ones who at first seem a little less “wow.” And if I as an adult can—ridiculously enough—get my feelings hurt at agility class of all places, then how much more might teenagers be scarred as life-long learners if they don’t consistently sense from their teachers an absolute belief that they are both worthy and capable? Indeed, it is way too easy for students to go from struggling in a subject to writing it off completely unless we are consistently giving them a reason to hope and the tools to succeed.
With this intention, I have long included in my course introductions an avowal to my new students of how eager I am to work with each of them, regardless of their current skill level or comfort with writing. Unfortunately, in truth, I was naturally better at reaching the stronger students, and so I fear that my sincere words may at times have proven hollow in practice. Recently, though, I’ve felt more successful at genuinely meeting each girl where she is and helping her towards her full potential, whatever that may be. The key has been implementing a five-part system of ongoing writing and reflection that has enabled me to personalize instruction and students to develop into growth-mindset writers.
There’s nothing terribly sexy about the way I organize writing portfolios. Students maintain a digital folder on OneNote that houses everything they write throughout the year, as well as the corresponding rubrics for and feedback on each essay. This accessible format fosters girls’ ability to reflect periodically on their evolving craft. While it’s true that some teachers have students select only their best work, I want mine to include everything because their most successful assignments are all the more fulfilling when seen in the context of having bounced back from and improved upon essays on which they struggled.
T-Charts and Take-Aways
The essential concept for these reflections I stole from a student many years ago. Brooke started sophomore English earning C’s and, as the months passed, made steady yet modest progress. So when she submitted her research essay in mid-March, an insightful and effective argument, I read it with wonder and delight. Her dramatic growth took me so much by surprise that I inquired about her strategy, which was amazingly simple: After receiving my feedback on each assignment, she made a t-chart listing “what worked” and “what didn’t.” Then, when drafting and revising subsequent essays, she reviewed her t-charts, deliberately considering all her past take-aways.
This idea struck me as genius, so I’ve now made it a routine part of the digesting-returned-essays process. Right below students’ Writing Portfolio in OneNote, there’s a folder titled Goal Setting and Growth that contains their t-charts following each major essay. What’s ideal is that these reflections force students to consider not just where they stumbled, but also where they excelled, an aspect girls so often overlook when stressing about the negative. I added a place for students to synthesize main ideas and to make inquiries, which receive written responses. I have consistently been impressed by the questions they think to ask, which frequently are the exact questions they should be asking. At the outset they’re hesitant to share their confusions, but as they become more comfortable, quibbles and queries turn into more in-depth concerns, generating conversations that lead to long-term growth.
Long-term growth—that’s the catch. My conscientious students are likely to come into the year perceiving each essay as a reflection on not simply their current writing skills, but their ultimate academic potential and even their quantitative worth as human beings. Moreover, they expect each score to rise, or they count themselves failures incapable of growth. To be honest, I understand how they can get sucked into such faulty reasoning. In fact, I used to think that way myself until my freshman year of college. As one of the students in Trinity University’s inaugural year of Humanities 1600, I wrote two short essays every week and one longer essay every other week for a grand total of twenty-eight essays in a semester-long course. The sixteen students in HUMA 1600, Section 2, taught by Doctors Victoria Aarons and Gary Kates, knew without a doubt that our essays were graded the most rigorously. (In December we made t-shirts celebrating our survival and how much we’d learned.) At first it was miserable, the pressure of constantly writing, constantly trying to apply feedback and do better, and—sure proof the professors had been overly ambitious—the following year, the required essays for the course were cut by half. But I wouldn’t trade my essay-ridden experience for anything because it taught me how to disregard a bad grade. “A C- on that one, no wonder. That was the night my roommate situation blew up.” “An A on this one! Of course, I loved that novel, and the analysis came easily.” I started to see grades as a product of many factors, only some of which I had control over. And although I never actually created a graph, I distinctly remember thinking that were I to plot my litany of scores, the line of best fit would have a markedly positive slope even though my grades often dipped on individual assignments. This realization, that I could take chances, make mistakes, sometimes wipeout but still be improving, it was positively liberating.
Inspired by this memory, I conceived of the Excel graphs my sophomores create based on the data from their essay rubrics. Rather than focusing on their summative grade for each essay—they’re too grade-driven already—I aim to draw their attention to the fluctuation in the points they earn on the separate elements addressed by the rubrics. They examine individual graphs for categories such as Thesis, Close Reading Analysis, and Incorporation of Textual Evidence on the content rubric and Proofreading, Grammar, and Word Choice on the style and grammar rubric. I’ve prepared the spreadsheets so that students need only load the data into a table and then click on tabs to see the graphs generate for each element. As I walk them through the procedure, I’m always tickled overhearing their chatter. “Huh, the lines do go up,” muses one girl. “Wow, I need to work on thesis statements,” realizes another. They call me over to discuss the patterns emerging, to celebrate signs of progress or ponder confusing discoveries. Sometimes they do both. Once a student’s grin had hardly had time to fade from her face—she’d just showed off her steep, positive line of best fit for Close Reading Analysis—when she gasped upon seeing her graph for Tone of Voice; its negative slope was the inverse of the other. After reviewing her past essays, we discovered the connection. Her analytical skills had indeed improved: She was naming stylistic devices, considering their effect, and connecting these points to larger thematic conclusions. However, she was employing the new terms somewhat awkwardly, writing statements like, “Austen uses diction…” (Yes, the novelist uses words, we laughed retrospectively.) Once she understood that it was her improvement in one category that had illuminated a weakness in another, she was satisfied and could proceed with a clear sense of direction.
Because class time is too limited for me to meet with everyone and because some students don’t want to talk about their writing in public anyway, I turn to Flipgrid as a casual means for them to share the insights they’ve garnered from examining their graphs. In a video of about one minute or less, each girl presents her thoughts, noting patterns, highlighting strengths, acknowledging continued areas for growth, and asking questions to which I reply. Short and easy methods of communication, these videos prompt self-reflection and allow me to gauge not only where students are and how I can help, but also their shifting attitudes toward themselves as writers. Delighted? Determined? Frustrated? Hopeless? By noting their tones of voice, I can tailor my approach, addressing both their academic and emotional needs.
Submitted alongside their final writing assignment, the summative reflection essentially prompts students to take a victory lap. I ask them to consider themselves as writers—to remember where they were, recognize where they are now, and pinpoint where they want to be in the future. One sophomore wrote, “This year I went through a lot of ups and downs, mostly downs, but when I got my last paper back, I was smiling ear to ear because I have never gotten above an 80 on an assignment before, and I surpassed my own goals.” After voicing how much she appreciated being challenged, she proceeded to name her most effective strategies and detail her objectives going into junior year. She embodies the values I seek to nurture: a fearlessness to honestly evaluate her work rooted in the self-confidence born from knowing that her writing skills are a work in progress, a work that will doubtlessly continue to progress. After all, I want students to develop faith in their ability to flourish in any environment, regardless of whether they receive the ideal amount of support.
Remember my nemeses Donna and Albert? As it turns out, the one-sided rivalry proved quite useful. After stewing a bit, my own growth mindset kicked in, and my dog and I started training more rigorously. She now enjoys taking on the teeter, and we’ve even participated in our first trial. When my students encounter their own trials going forward, I hope they find themselves equally ready for the challenge and confident in long-term success.
A teacher of fifteen years, Allison Hibbitt delights in working with her classes of sophomore English and AP Language and Composition. She aims to inspire these students who know how to read, write, think, and communicate reasonably well to set even higher standards. Using class discussion and detailed feedback to demonstrate the degree to which these simple skills can be honed, she tries to scaffold learning experiences that allow each girl to reach her potential and gain confidence in her voice. Allison is a lover of muscle cars, having driven a Mustang for the last twenty-six years, and she is such a fan of the Harry Potter series that she decorated a whole room in her house with the trappings of Hogwarts…complete with floating candles!