Category Archives: mwp

Falling in Love with Assessment in Vegas: NWP/NCTE 2012

Vegas wedding chapelThis year’s NWP & NCTE Annual meetings took us to Las Vegas, NV. Amid the nonstop lights, music, and second-hand smoke of the Vegas casinos, I fell in love.  I have a colleague who talks fondly of her elopement in Las Vegas.  My rendezvous, while less romantic, was filled with much wooing on the part of various rubrics, checklists and frameworks for assessing writing. I have always been a fan of words, but the more I explore the words and phrases we use to describe what students are doing when writing, the more  excited I become to use that language to help them grow as writers.

My courtship with assessment did not begin in Las Vegas.  Over the past few years I have been growing more and more interested in the language we use to describe writing, especially as “writing” becomes increasingly complex through integration of digital technologies and social media. My dissertation research on school-based documentary production continues to challenge my understandings of writing and how to “teach” it.

Further fueling my interests have been recent mumblings in our state to remove the burden of high-stakes testing, a campaign issue Governor Mark Dayton voiced and continues to pursue. Would elimination of state-based testing lend itself to incorporating national assessments? With the Common Core initiative many states are considering comprehensive assessments such as PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  Would such moves help us to better understand writing or learning in general?

With these questions in mind, I traveled from assessment session to assessment session, which often took me from one hotel ballroom to another in search of the marriage between writing and assessment. Coincidentally, but not surprisingly, all of the NCTE sessions I attended on assessment presented frameworks that were started in some way through teachers of the National Writing Project.

The first session I attended was on 6 +1 Traits of writing.  This is not a new framewoTraitsrk for assessing writing, but has proven to have staying power with its presentation of 6 + 1 (7 for the non math majors in the group) traits or qualities for assessing and teaching writing: Ideas, Organization, Voice, Word Choice, Sentence Fluency, Conventions, and Presentation. I was impressed to see that some teachers are adapting the 6 Traits framework to digital writing through use of the Presentation trait, including within Presentation an attention to audience and purpose.  Most teachers I have talke with find the Traits to be helpful especially in providing a common terminology to discuss writing. Yet, some educators have complained that it has too heavy a focus on the final product and that it is less flexible with nonfiction texts, especially when discussing the concept of voice.   To learn more about the Traits visit a helpful 6 + 1 Traits resource site.

Another assessment session I attended described the Analytical Writing Continuum (AWC).  This framework, built on the foundation of 6 Traits, also offers a wonderful vocabulary and superb framework or continuum for informing instruction, professional development, and research on the teaching of writing.  It differs mostly from 6+1 Traits in its reconceptualization of the Voice trait as Stance, which allows more for the perspective taking that is necessary when writing and reading nonfiction and informational texts.  What I’m especially drawn to with

My NWP Conference Buddies

My NWP Conference Buddies

this framework is its emphasis on teachers as the central players in assessment.  Implemented ideally, this framework designs assessment as collaborative learning experiences for professionals. The hope with AWC is that teachers who use the framework will not only have a better understanding of what their students can do with writing, but will also feel better prepared to teach and talk about writing with their students.  To find out more about AWC check out these links: What is the Analytical Writing Continuum? and AWC Assessment as a from of teacher inquiry.

The final assessment session I attended was on a newer, and less well-known framework, the Multimodal Assessment

Project or MAP.  This framework seeks to encompass non-print texts as well as traditional texts such as the academic essay.  In doing so, it attempts to deemphasize the final product or artifact of writing in order to consider the entire process of writing into the assessment.  To get started, this framework used well-known rubrics such as the 6+1 Framework, The Washington State Content/Organization/Ideas and Conventions Rubrics (HsCoSSS), the above-mentioned AWC, as well as common film rubrics and applied these to a variety of digital texts such as VoiceThread compositions, digital stories and other media texts.  Through this convergence of assessment rubrics, the team identified elements that were missing and devised instead the following criteria: Context, Artifact, Process Management, Substance/Content, and Habits of Mind.  These five criteria or “domains,” isolate the focus on product and thus limit it, while also heightening focus on Context and Process, and thought processes (Habits of Mind). While I am excited about this new framework, I fear that it may be too ambitious in a time of high- stakes assessment, which assumes all learning can be compressed into some final, tangible product.  That said, I find it paramount to keep my eye on this framework, especially as our definitions of writing expand and become increasingly unstuck in time and space. The following link provides much explanation of this new framework:

BumbysWhat was perhaps most revealing about my explorations in assessment was an event that my colleagues and I experienced on our last night in Las Vegas.  After dining on charred octopus, we strolled through the market place of the Cosmopolitan Hotel and Casino and stumbled upon an art installation that invited passersby to partake in a “Fair & Honest Appraisal of Your Appearance” by Mr. and Ms. Bumpy.  (Visit here to find out more about the Bumbys and to take a peek at our fast-fingered assessors.

Interested in how these appraisers might assess our appearances, all four of us stepped in line.  We stood alert as cloaked appraisers looked us up and down and typed appraisals of our outward appearance and demeanor in the form of short stories.  As crazy as this may seem, we were not the only ones to so willingly offer ourselves to be judged by strangers;, groups of other tourists and people stood in line, waiting for their turns to be evaluated.

After being appraised I realized that I “have a youthful Meg Ryan quality.”  What does that mean? Is that good or bad? Assuming that this must – be only a Vegas thing, we asked one of the producers about the event.  He said that the installation has experienced much success across the country.  He went on to say that the experience taps into human nature, that we all secretly desire to know how others view us.  Furthermore he explained that the cards or print appraisals produced using old fashioned typewriters serve as ice breakers in a culture that while hyper-connected electronically lacks the social ease to interact in face-to-face settings.

This experience revealed to me that we all harbor a secret love for assessment. We want to know if what we are doing has value to someone other than ourselves. In many ways that is what all forms of assessment or evaluation do. They provide us with coordinates for where we stand.  In terms of formative assessment, they provide us with the “ice-breaker” needed to enter the text, the space to discuss what is working and what is not. Most importantly, the assessment provides us a threshold from which to begin conversations about how to proceed with our writing, our teaching, our lives.  I hope that my many rendezvous with assessment prove fruitful in my own teaching.


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Documentary as “Community Advocacy”

As part of the professional develop ment outreach work I do with the Minnesota Writing Project, I recently had the opportunity to work with a teacher using documentary filmmaking with her students.

“The Dangers of Poverty” (4:36)

The eighteen students in class, mostly juniors and seniors, were enrolled in an advanced language arts course for English language learners.  As part of their reading, research, and writing about community issues, the students made documentaries about issues of poverty and educational access.

My tasks were to assist the teacher in designing the curriculum, work with students in small groups as they drafted their voice over narrations, as well as provide technical assistance and tutorials while working in the computer lab during the final weeks of the project. Working on this project was a blast.  Not only do I love working with innovative teachers up for literacy adventurous big and small (Ms. Ziegler, whom the students affectionately called “Ms. Ina,” was definitely of this ilk), but I also crave working one on one with the students. On this project I got to know many of the students very well, helping them to work through their expression of ideas when writing the voice over narrations and then again as they combined their own writing with the interview footage, images and music.

“Poverty vs Education” (6:19)

Far from what some may call glorified dioramas, these iMovie video projects were very involved, requiring students to critically analyze the data they had gathered on their topics.  In addition to regular “academic research” for the project, the students were required to gather primary resources in the form of interviews with relevant community leaders. Weaving interview clips along side voice over narrations is not an easy task. Students had to decide which information and interview clips to leave behind, which to include, and in what order. The students also had to negotiate with their peers (the students worked in groups of three) regarding which images and music to use in order to add emphasis and tone to their arguments.  I remember hearing many heated conversations related to whether a group should use Michael Jackson’s “You are Not Alone” or Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” The group members wanted the mood to be serious but not sad.

As I continue my work with media composition as it relates to literacy learning and instruction, I hope to continue working with students as they make media.  More importantly I hope to continue working with adventurous literacy educators like Ina Ziegler, who knowingly jumped into the messiness of media composition in the classroom.

“Solving Poverty” (2:54)

Working with Ms. Ziegler as well as with several other K12 educators using digital media forms of writing, my understanding of writing instruction has become more and more complex. While I love to teach word choice and playful phrasing, I realize that words alone are not enough.  In order for our students to persuade their points and advocate their views for 21st-century audiences, they must know how to use media in rhetorical ways.  How else will they gain these critical literacy skills without schools providing the opportunities to create with images, video, music and sound?  So while Ms. Ziegler’s students used documentary to advocate for issues pertinent in their community, I use print, the medium of currency in my profession, to advocate for a broadening of our community values, for a change in how we see writing in the lives of our students.

The final documentaries can be viewed by visiting the course website – Listening to Learn, Speaking to Persuade: Documentary as Community Advocacy.

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NWP: Network Relevance Through Versatility

“Writing is my life, not a hobby, and I am honored to be a part of this program.”

“I don’t think of myself as a writer, but it was awesome to be involved in this interesting workshop.  The volunteer teachers were very helpful.”

With all of the talk of recent about educational funding and what counts as “quality” teaching and learning, I can help but be drawn back again and again to the words of our youngest writers above, as they find their voice and views on the world through writing.  I have seen this happen countless time through my work with the Minnesota Writing Project, a local site of the larger network, the National Writing Project.  The work of NWP, especially as it plays out locally at MWP, is much more than a teacher organization.  While yes, the organization support the professional development of teachers as literacy advocates and instructional leaders, it also supports the literacy learning of a diverse set of community members including K12 students and college students working toward their teaching degrees. Through its many partnerships with institutional and community agencies, NWP has become a multi-pronged network for literacy engagement. Take for instance, the Young Writers Conference, an ongoing youth program through MWP that involves the participation of various educators to support student and learning.

What is the Young Writers’ Conference??

The Young Writers Conference is offered through a special partnership with the St. Paul School District. The Conference is an opportunity for schools to inspire some of their best student writers by bringing them to the University of Minnesota campus and fostering interaction with other student writers.

60 students (grades 6-12)

3 days at either the  Bell Natural History Museum

Cross-disciplinary writing experience

Focus on non-fiction writing

This year’s conference centered on the theme of sustainable shelters, which allowed students to incorporate elements of environmental awareness in their fiction and non-fiction writings. To inspire writing and reflect on the stories in nature-based settings, students were given journals to write in, collect their drawings, and remix images into their own artistic creations. Final writings were shared with the larger group and then published in an online anthology.

In addition to supporting young writers, the program supports educators at a variety of stages in their careers.  An essential component of the program involves providing experiences for pre-service teachers to work with young writers in real writing contexts, helping them to sort through “what really works” amid the pages and pages of reading they do in their education classes.

We can not underestimate the complexity of literacy learning and how it involves learning across multiple contexts and relationships. With this comes the need for quality professional development programming, such as that of NWP that is not only ongoing but versatile in the ways it provides support for both teachers and students alike.


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NCTE & NWP in Orlando

This is my fourth year in a row attending both the NWP & NCTE conferences.  I look forward to this conference all year because it is here at the intersection of both NWP & NCTE that I feel most at home professional and intellectually.

Attending NCTE I am able to tap into the key content areas that interests me most, which at the moment are digital media, writing, & social equity as they relate to English education and literacy in general.  Yet it is through my participation at NWP events, which also address these topics, that I am able to engage in the practices of learning that most confirm the reasons I became teacher 12 years ago and the reasons I am still teaching today.  These practices include courageous conversations, creative problem solving, collaborative program building etc.

I firmly believe that it is through my engagement with the writing project, working with teachers from a variety of classroom contexts K-college that I am able to put into action any of the social equity & digital media content that I study and write about for say “NCTE audiences.” The research and writing I do within the NCTE world helps me to think through the ideas, in an intense “writing to learn” process. Yet it is through the collaborative network learning of NWP model, that these ideas are significantly revised and collectively refined in ways that make them sustainable and relevant. Without the work I do with NWP, I feel that much of the work I do for NCTE would only have meaning for a small audience and perhaps never be considered for purposes of action within classrooms or among teachers.

I think specifically of the work I have been doing with NWP related to recruiting and retaining diversity within the writing project.  I have been studying many ideas related to diversity and social equity for the past five years, however, it isn’t until you sit down and try to really enact these ideas within real contexts such as a dynamic and living network of teachers, that you are able to see how what these ideas look like when connection with real people and classroom contexts.

Beside strengthening already existing relations with mentors and colleagues, I also met many new people I hope to continue bumping into.  First, I met a woman from University of Michigan, Andrea Zellner, who gave a talk on distributed identities. Also, there was a woman from Columbia University, Lori Falchi, who attended my talk.  She had such fantastic questions that pushed my understanding of local practices within literacy contexts. Other creative thinkers I want to keep in touch with are Chuck Jurich, from the High Desert Writing Project in New Mexico, and the educator collective making up the NWP Multimodal Assessment Project housed at the equally delicious Digital Is.

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I believe in professional communities…

On Monday I met with 15 other educators, who teach across the metro area in elementary, middle, secondary, and college classrooms. Our reason for gathering was our shared commitment to not only the Minnesota Writing Project (MWP), the organization that introduced us to each other, but also to meeting the needs of diverse learners both in the form of our students and fellow teachers.

We started our discussion by listening to Tarack MacLain read his list of 30 things he believes.  Tarack’s courageous list invited us to reflect on our own beliefs and how these beliefs brought us to MWP and continue to shape the work we do.

For me personally, it was my belief in writing as a route to personal empowerment that first brought me back to graduate school and then to MWP.  I remember watching my ninth grade students reinvent themselves through their writing.  What has kept me involved over the past four years has been the professional community I have found.  No where at my school was I able to have the discussions about writing pedagogy or teaching in general like I was able to have with the groups of teachers I met through MWP.

Whether it was being out of a district setting that freed our discussions or the intense focus on writing that made the conversations emerge naturally, I was impressed by how we could talk for hours about teaching, and I wasn’t seen as a “brown noser” for wanting to talk about how to grade writing or how my gender and race impacted my teaching.  I had found an intellectual and professional home.  This home nurtured me, including my professional voice and purpose in ways that my teaching and coursework had not.

Going forward, I believe MWP through its teacher-centered stance and network relations with the National Writing Project has the potential to bring about change in education, to make schooling relevant for diverse learners, in ways not possible through teacher education programs.

In supporting teachers in their daily work in the classroom and not just preservice training, MWP/NWP provides a professional home away from school, that is ongoing, where educators can negotiate their own identities as teachers, writers, leaders, parents, and politicians in order to develop their own voice to impact change in their home schools and districts.

I know that the work of change does not happen overnight but rather bit by bit, summer institute by summer institute as our local network grows and takes shape according to its shared values.  For now, I am happy to say that I have values and I have a home.

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Remembering SI 2009

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