Teacher to Teacher: Getting to Know Our Students
By Lynne R. Dorfman
When we examine the important, long-lasting effects of formative assessments in writing workshop, we discover that they deepen student writers’ understanding of why and how writing is a valuable tool they will use throughout their lives. Formative assessment helps students understand that writing is a means to achieve goals and develop an understanding of themselves and others.
What can teachers do in the beginning of the year to get to know their students right away and help them make good decisions about their students’ instructional needs? Interest surveys and inventories help students develop a writer’s identity, to consciously declare, “I am a writer.” Surveys, autobiographical sketches, and time lines can help the student and teacher discover more about attitudes, interests, motivation, and self-concept, which all contribute to students’ successes or failures. These formative assessment measures may be the most important things we can do to foster student engagement in our writing workshops and across the day.
Invite students to share what they think and know about writing. A writing inventory allows teachers to assess their students’ prior knowledge and recall writing formats and skills. An inventory enables the teacher to learn more about students’ attitudes toward writing narratives, opinions, and informational pieces. For teachers, the inventory is a way to discover information about how students feel about writing and how they feel about themselves as writers. This knowledge is important because it will help teachers create specific writing opportunities to motivate students and provide access to information that will help the teachers understand prior experiences. For students, the inventory enables them to reflect on what they already know about writing and how they feel about the writing process.
Autobiographical sketches are another way to understand students’ writing background. Ask students to write about themselves, discussing successes and failures in a comfortable format that could include a friendly letter, a narrative, a top-ten list, or a poem. Students can also create a time line on which successes are posted above the line and failures are posted below the line. In this way, teachers have a starting point to begin to think of ways to engage their student writers in the act of writing.
Write a letter to your students’ parents. When I had my own classroom, I wrote a letter of introduction each new school year. I asked my parents/caregivers to write a letter in response, sharing anything about their child they thought might be important for me to know. I asked them to tell me about their child’s reading habits, special interests, and if they wrote or draw at home. I suggested that they share something their child seemed to enjoy from the previous school year or something the child was looking forward to this school year. Then, I included a self-addressed stamped envelope to make things easier for the parents. Although I never received a letter from each household, I often received more than half.
Today, parents can send an e-mail, but there are other challenges, as the number of English learners increase in our classes. Another option is to leave notepaper on your students’ desks at open house and ask parents to take a few minutes to write a few things they think you should know about their child. Or leave a stamped postcard at each desk, urging parents to take the postcard home, jot down some things they think you should know about their child’s interests, successes, and fears, and drop it in the mail. Seeking help from parents strengthens the community and helps us get a clearer picture of the students we greet each September.
How do you get to know your student writers in the beginning of the school year?
Lynne Dorfman is a co-director of the PA Writing & Literature Project. She is co-author of A Closer Look: Learning More About Our Students with Formative Assessment, K-6, available this September at Stenhouse Publishers. Lynne serves KSRA as an editor for PAReads and is an adjunct professor at Arcadia University. She attributes all her successes as a presenter and as a writer of professional books to her participation in PAWLP’s invitational summer writing institute and all her coursework at West Chester University through the PA Writing & Literature Project. It changed her teaching life and enriched her personal life with wonderful friends.