Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

Data: the Long & the Short of It

Data: the Long & the Short of It

As states release data to school districts, and as administrators construct goals for the upcoming school year, I want to remind teachers that the most significant data to be generated out of your classroom will be from your current students.

The writing samples from this past spring (or compiled from the past three years) tell one fragment of a mosaic of a cohort of students' writing abilities. The collective data points reveal little concerning the growth or promise of your next class of students when they are with you and functioning under your encouragement and guidance.

Remind yourselves that the current assessments of writing are mitigated by the formalization of the writing process into a narrow model--especially considering the fact that the tests are one-shot writing activities for designated time chunks. 

At a training session at the Chester County Intermediate Unit this past year, the teachers in attendance were told that the state assigns writing topics to individual scorers. In other words, one particular scorer only receives writing samples for one, specific prompt. He becomes an "expert" in that prompt and is best able to holistically score it since he is ready to read multiple perspectives and access points from students. Theoretically, this system rewards students for developing an answer and not necessarily one, specific answer.

In short, no matter what mode the state calls each writing sample, students are being tested in what James Britton labeled "transactional writing." The students write responses of a few paragraphs to an assigned topic in order to communicate information to an audience already familiar with that information...the same audience who will evaluate and score that writing.

This is hardly an authentic act of writing.

Most writing is not an on-demand act but a social process over many hours, days, weeks, and in some cases, years. Yes, writing is social. We talk to develop our thinking. We listen to others. We interact with texts and experiences which influence our beliefs and curiosity. We read drafts to others. We receive feedback from writing circles. To conjure up good feelings of Britton again, "all of life is a prewriting activity" and it does not happen inside of a ninety-minute frame in the real world.

Keep the state-created, shrouded, and controlled analytics in perspective. Yes, that particular data can have some value to the teacher, but it one narrative.  It is a short view, short-term, imperfect analysis of a fluid skill that needs recursive support throughout the entire lifespan of even the world's "best" writers.

For example, Mark Overmeyer, in his portion of the Grammar Matters presentation at the 2016 ILA conference in Boston, pointed out that the better a writer becomes in the real world, the more support he receives from an editorial staff. Overmeyer cited a writer who won a Puliltzer Prize. He shared that the award was a great relief because now the publishing company would ensure that four editors helped him with future manuscripts. Overmeyer asked, "If this is true, then why do we expect perfection from our kids?"

Is perfection the pressure we put on ourselves when we receive the state data? If so, stop! Seriously, we work in a profession dependent on imperfection as much as it relies on curiosity. An over-emphasis in perfection kills curiosity and engagement.

At its worst, the state's data moves teachers and administrators to leap into reactive, short-term, myopic, views of writing. Ostensibly, we look at the numbers (according to the great reveal by the state) and then we react with (collaborative) decisions leading to changes in what we deliver: more analysis! more nonfiction! more grammar!

If we want to improve writers, take the long view. It is tempting to rush into programs promising improved scores and students better prepared for competition--the kind of competition preparation that creates the "gotcha moments" (to borrow a phrase from Mark Overmeyer) that create resentful and disengaged learners. We lose sight of the fact that filling up an adolescent with lots of terms and rules does not make anyone a better writer. As adults, we tend to believe that (since we know more now than we did as children) that it is our accumulated knowledge of terminology that makes the difference.

The terminology does not make the difference--lots of writing practice makes the difference. The experiences you have had as a reader and social being has made the difference. You write better today because you have years and years of reading behind you and your child may not just yet. Your life, enriched with texts of all varieties, conversations with people of all perspectives and experiences, and opportunities to create and write socially and professionally have made you a better writer today than when you were as an adolescent.

It is tempting to believe that all we need to do is fill the kids up with words and an evaluative practice emphasizing correctness and error-free writing.

A desire for error-free writing is all many of us know--especially outside of education--and very few connect the past fifty years of research of writing to our best and next practice. We fall victim to the short-term analysis of pressure of competition generated by state scores.

This state-inspired competition drives teachers crazy because of the deliberate uncertainty behind it. In a practice (teaching) driven by preparation from multiple points of assessment and data, state-generated data often directs teachers to fix what is broken while being blindfolded. We grope for meaning in numbers disconnected from what we know to be good writing practice.

Few teachers would criticize data because most, if not all, gather their own data to build a foundation beneath the decisions inside our classrooms. The localized data I pull from my classroom is unique to my individual students. While teachers in other communities might find value in some of my practices and data points, I would not expect their methods to perfectly match mine.

Actually, locally-generated, personalized data is an invaluable resource for teachers. Digested over the long term, various methods of data-gathering can move teachers to differentiate effectively and efficiently.

When we go back to school, look at the state data. Discuss it. And then set it aside. You will be like a dog chasing its tail if you allow it to drive your decisions too drastically. Rather, spend your time talking with colleagues about the data you all generate and how you use it. Share what works for you. Listen to what works for others. Adopt, adapt, collaborate, and go back to your classroom and see your kids for who they are today. Help them where they are today. Support and encourage them for what they need today.

As Don Graves noted, "The teacher is the chief learner in the classroom." Be that for your kids. Find the methods and systems to generate personalized data points that work for you.

I would be interested to know some data-collection techniques that teachers find useful in their classrooms! Please share in the comments section.

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