Tag Archives: NWP

The Only Assessment that Matters

Photo: Inverse #2

Inverse 2 – cc licensed ( BY NC ND ) flickr photo by Andy Houghton

A fellow National Writing Project colleague and friend Paul Allison and I were talking once upon a time, when he posed a question very close to this, “In the end, self-assessment is the only assessment that really matters isn’t it?” That may not be exactly what he said, but that is how I like to remember it. Plus, it certainly captures the spirit of the brief exchange. The sentiment resonated so strongly with me it has remained ever since.

We all must live with ourselves an awfully long time, more than anyone else certainly has to live with us. That’s for sure. It is not uncommon for me share comments like these and stress the importance of reflection and self-assessment with my students.

A Brief Anecdote on Student Self-Assessment

A few years ago, I received the most remarkable student self-assessment I have ever read, as part of an end-of-semester writing portfolio. Also, I have to admit being a little disconcerted when I saw myself quoted in a student paper, but this student simply gets it and gets it on a deeper level than I ever would have imagined. It also seemed to highlight a lot of the issues that have been shared and discussed in this MOOC. Here is an excerpt.

Through the course of the year, I have been writing down bits of conversations, words, and tips that I have heard in English class. Some are funny, some are weird, and some really stick with me. On October 28th, you said, “[Self-assessment] is really the only assessment that matters.” Is it? Through the course of the year, I grew more and more at home with this statement. If I know I am doing the best I can, then everything else is secondary. “Any time you’re focused on the grade, you are off target,” you said on February 14th [and has] always been a hard concept for me to wrap my head around. Through the year, though, these quotes bloomed into significant meaning. Whenever I write, like now for instance, it needs to just be the best I can do. My goal is to make my point and prove it in my writing, not simply to reach 600 words. This is a way that I have grown as both a student and a person, because as my mindset in school shifted, so did my outlook on the rest of my life.

Keep in mind this is from a former ninth grade student. It remains my favorite, most fascinating student self-assessment I have ever received. It broke all expectations. In fact, reading something like this, written by a student, makes a lot of the slogging through drafts as an English teacher, a whole lot less daunting.

My Latest Plan for a Self-Assessment

I am about to wrap a narrative writing unit with my ninth grade students, which I have already mined for examples for Beyond Letter Grades. Heavily influenced by George Hillocks’ Narrative Writing: Learning a New Model for Teaching, I have been using a lot of the methodology outlined in that title ever since reading it.

Beginning with a pre-test audit to be written in a one hour class, students were given the following prompt right from Hillocks: Write a story about an event that is important to you for some reason. Write about it in as much detail as you can so that someone reading it will be able to see what you saw and feel what you felt.

This week students will submit their anchor summative assignment, which they have had a couple of weeks to develop. Later in the week, they will take the post-test, another hour in class writing task, with the same pre-test prompt. In between, they have completed a handful of what I like to call rehearsal assignments, practicing specific narrative techniques listed in this rubric, also something I have adapted from Hillocks.

I have deliberately kept only a handful of broad categories to be assessed. Using this rubric, I already scored the pre-test, and will also use it to score the summative narrative task and the post-test.

Prior to assigning the summative narrative task, I issued and reviewed the rubric with students, in an effort to key them explicitly into the skills and technique I am hoping that they will demonstrate, despite routinely highlighting them in classroom instruction and various reading selections.

Once they have done a round of peer feedback and submitted the summative narrative task and completed the post-test, I am going to have students conduct a self-assessment.

  1. I will ask each student to score their summative narrative task with the rubric, prior to submitting it.
  2. I will hand each student their pre-test and ask them to score it with the rubric.
  3. I will hand each student their post-test and again ask them to score it with the rubric.
  4. I will then ask them to write narrative feedback about the difference between the two scores, specifically focusing on what they have identified as improvement and why.

I am considering sharing the scores I gave each student on both the pre-test and post-test, and asking them to consider any potential discrepancies between their scores and mine, but I am still undecided on this point.

Turning Summative into Formative

Since I have students complete an end-of-semester writing portfolio, this exercise will be good preparation for a more general, reflective self-assessment that accompanies the portfolio, like the student excerpt included above. Keeping with a broader strategy of looping many of the tasks and skills over the length of the course, this narrative self-assessment becomes a rehearsal for the portfolio one.

All three assessments then become fair game for revision, thus transforming a summative assessment into a formative one. Students may choose which piece that they would ultimately like to include in the portfolio. Since each one is a story, it can become more difficult to decide which story they want to revise, develop further, and include as their best of the narrative bunch along with the other modes and genres that comprise the portfolio.


In the end, I am blending a number of concepts celebrated in this class in my teaching practice, sometimes in a number of simultaneous ways. Occasionally, I wonder if it can become too complicated for my students. However, the only thing I am truly concerned about is that students are able to learn, improve, and demonstrate their learning in a few different ways. This is also a message that I repeatedly try to impress upon them over the length of the course.

Attempting many alternative assessment methods requires a pretty substantial initial investment of time and energy in developing relationships,  setting expectations, and building trust. It may be a bit ambitious, but I can say that the results have been relatively successful, especially as I continue to refine and advance my reasons, approach, and methods.

Thoughts Responding to Some Recent Student Reflections

I have been reviewing a lot of student writing of late, which has definitely eaten into the time I have to spend some time investing in my own writing. I have quite a few things I am itching to pound into words but have been partially burned out, feeling behind, and letting a lot of things get in the way. All this  got me thinking a little about my relationship to the National Writing Project network.

In reading some of the self-assessments and reflections from my ninth grade students, I am finding a common thread, corroborated by the number instances and the individuals writing the same thing. While students are admittedly not the most reliable reporters, I continue to see statements that suggest my students have already written more in my class already then they have in their entire eight grade year, and we are not even through the first semester. Interestingly, many of the students reporting this I would rank a bit higher on any reliability scale. Plus, I know it is probably adolescent hyperbole. Yet with sadness I must admit, this would not shock me if it proved true.

Perhaps more curious to me is I genuinely wonder just how much writing they are asked to do and what the nature of it is. On this point, I am genuinely inquisitive and not looking to just pass judgments. Given the chance I want to have some conversations with teachers not just in the middle school where I teach, but I also feeling some compulsion to make inquiries  of other teachers in the high school, particularly outside the English department. Honestly, I have always been a bit reluctant to do this, for fear that it might seem aggressive and judgmental.

Now I know I make the kids write a lot, although I try to be careful about believing my own hype on this, not to mention “a lot” is a pretty relative term. Still, I am growing a little weary reading accounts of how minor the writing demands are, be it middle school, other departments, or even within my own department. I guess my suspicions are mounting again on this front, which happens from time to time.

Part of what may be fueling all this suspicion and concern is my steadfast feeling that many teachers simply do not consider themselves writers, which brings me back to the Writing Project. One of the core values of the Writing Project effort focuses on the teacher as a writer. Many a Writing Project teacher is likely to echo the idea that it is hard to teach anyone how to write if you are not engaged in writing yourself. Thus, if many of my colleagues just don’t think of themselves as writers how much instruction are they really able to provide?

What’s more, it seems to me that as I informally look around writing is almost synonymous with assessment. Is it any wonder that I encounter so many fourteen year-olds that are reluctant or weak writers? Almost every time students put pen to paper it is to produce work destined to become fodder for teacher’s judgments, teachers who do not consider themselves writers but seem to believe they know good writing when they see it. Even more disconcerting is when the only real value of student writing has is merely a means for extracting some knowledge that they should have obtained. Talk about a recipe that would make anybody gag, not to mention a mess of mixed messages.

I certainly don’t feel like I am breaking any new ground here, but I guess I have been feeling some of this more acutely as of late. This seemed as good a place as any to show it. It all makes me want to stop reading student writing and get to writing some more of my own.

On Collections

Note: This is a cross-post from a prompt that caught my eye recently at the iAnthology, a small community of pretty committed National Writing Project teachers. In true Writing Project fashion, every week begins with a prompt open to all participants. This week’s Writing into the Week had to do with collections.

I have been feeling more compulsion to write a lot lately, more than normal. Some of it is even making it to online spaces.

When I was a kid my mother used to always declare, with a certain degree of ironic exasperation, that I collected collections. I suppose there was a grain of truth in that, although I am not sure how much complicity that she had in that observation.

As a child, I was very much into complete sets or series, action figures, Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, trading cards, comic books, and more were to my liking. It was as if some advertising executive was thinking of me when the phrase “collect them all” was coined. I even remember trying to convince my parents to keep going to Burger King, just to get all of the Star Wars collectable glasses with each film release.

As I grew older, my tastes changed, but my urge to assemble sets did not. I still have a few sets from my youth, stored somewhere in boxes. All of my the toy cars are packed neatly into two of those carrying cases with the plastic mesh trays, with a slot for each car. I even have a few boxes of comic books, each individually packaged in a plastic sleeve with an acid-free cardboard backer.

I often wonder why I hang onto all of it, especially after having purged all kinds of stuff each time I have moved. Every once in a while, I still marvel at how much crap kind of naturally collects while I wasn’t paying very close attention.

Now while it might seem as though there still are a few collections of collections in my house, it really all comes down to books and music. I have a lot of books and CDs, too many really. My penchant for sets has never really ebbed, I guess. Amidst the overflowing shelves I have accumulated, are some revealing runs of musicians and authors.

There is every novel by Hemingway, from my post high school binge, between ages eighteen and nineteen, after I read The Sun Also Rises in a senior humanities class and fell in love with it. To this day A Farewell to Arms remains one of my favorite novels of all time. It is a book that so much affected me it took threats from my wife to ensure I would be present for the delivery of our first child. Of course, I am glad she insisted.

There is every CD that Paul Weller has ever made, another adolescent affair. Aren’t nearly all of our great musical love affairs sparked when we are our teens? The British Modfather has never really caught on Stateside, but he started banging out music as a nineteen year-old in 1977 with The Jam and has kept making music ever since. Last count that meant over 30 discs bought by this fan.

There is every novel written by Neil Gaiman, the cult fantasy writer, who I discovered in the aftermath of his Sandman success, despite vaguely recognizing the name. While that collection didn’t start until I was already well into adulthood, it still draws heavily on my young connection to the comic book genre, which where he made his name first. Of course, I have very slowly endeavored to go back and read those early Sandman stories in trade paperback, although I don’t have all of them just yet.

Then there is the many near sets that litter my house’s office space. They include runs from names that I have most but not quite every single title.

In music, these are the likes of Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen, John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Elvis Costello, Peter Gabriel, and Eric Clapton, just to name a few. My wife laments that we cannot ever simply shuffle my iPod on long trips because every third song is likely going to be a Weller, Earle, or Springsteen single.

Amongst the bookshelves, that now overflow into almost every room in the house, are mainly subject sets, including double-digit counts on soccer, teaching, and increasingly dated web development books. In fact, I also have so many theatre books form my undergraduate days that I would need to have an entire, exclusively devoted  shelf system if I wanted to display them all. This is on top of Narnia, Harry Potter, Artemis Fowl, and more series that I look forward to rereading with my kids when they get a bit older.

By the way, my less-than-guiltless mother, who complained of the mess from all the collections, would later buy me a complete set of Star Wars figures when they were re-released with the second set of movies, all because she forced me to get rid of it all as a kid. This was when I was in my thirties. I still don’t even know where to put it all.

Interestingly, it all goes back to childhood and adolescence for me. It may have started with toy cars and Star Wars figures but it morphed into music and books. You can tell so much about people by what they collect. Perhaps, in writing this I am frightfully learning that I have never really grown up. Although I am not sure that’s true, it probably lets on more of a wistful need for nostalgia.

One revealing moment does still remain in my mind, however. I still vividly recall attending a party when I was in high school. It was a birthday party for a girl whose name has long vanished. She lived in a beautiful, large, old house with far more rooms than my parent’s tiny Cape Cod. Most amazing to me was the fact that this house had a library. I got lost in that library, away from the party, for most of the evening, staring at the leather-bound series of Great Books, as well as the hundreds of other titles packed on exquisite, cherry built-in shelves. There was even a small section of music, vinyl, cassettes, and an impressive number of CDs for all of their newness at the time. I was mesmerized by it all.

The nameless birthday girl, whose face eludes me too, found me in that room surrounded by all those books at one point. Before beckoning me back to the action, she commented, “Yeah, my dad reads a lot,” with a leaden heaviness emphasizing “a lot.” Literally, it was at that party, a prescient moment occurred. It was then that I thought, “I want to have library when I grow up,” and I began saving my books and music ever since. My grandest of collections was born right then.