I’m particularly interested in the volume of invisible work in our world. As a teacher, I experience firsthand just how much work it takes outside the classroom to ensure that students learn, that parents are communicated with, that accountability boxes are marked. Those school hours don’t even begin to contain the lesson plans, the emails, communication with colleagues, professional learning, and the preparation of “stuff” for students that are necessary to a successful classroom learning environment.
I’ve also been working on a National Writing Project research team with the primary goal of supporting an evaluation study of upper elementary (grades 4 and 5) argument writing. And while an evaluation system was already in place for middle and high school students, the development of grade appropriate materials to make the system work for younger students has been an amazing learning experience–and involved hours and hours of invisible work.
Evaluating student writing is not as easy as simply checking boxes and assigning the writing a score. In the case of this argument writing, we developed sourced-based prompts that would reflect the kinds of tasks students would experience in lessons supported by the professional development their teachers received. We piloted the prompts to ensure that the tasks put together by adults would be relevant and accessible to students. We refined the prompts and then sent them out into the field to be administered in pre/post situations with students who are a part of the study.
Our research partners culled writing that we then sifted to establish a set of anchor papers to be used to operationalize our scoring continuum, each anchor helping to define the range of particular score points. These will be used to train scorers to ensure that they are calibrated to the scoring system, increasing the reliability of the scores. Anticipating potential questions from scorers drives the development of mini lessons to clarify the scoring system, again working to ensure that scorers are calibrated to the system and reliable in their scores.
And while most of the this work is invisible to those outside our small research team, when we come together in our work, powerful collaborative learning takes place. It’s as if this process opens the faucet that pours out words to describe all the moves that writers make. Even the most basic and underdeveloped of essays contains promising next steps, illustrates what the writer does know and can do, and fits somewhere on the continuum of what argument writing at this level looks like.
And the camaraderie of our team turns what could be drudgery into pure joy. We laugh, delighting in a student’s turn of phrase, unexpected use of evidence, or insightful interpretation of source material. We argue over score points until we can agree unequivocally on the boundaries of each score–sure enough that we can convey this understanding to a team of scorers who will tackle scoring thousands of papers during a week this coming summer.
And while much of the work is invisible, it isn’t unimportant. This groundwork will ensure that student writing will teach us about the effectiveness of professional development–and about the power of looking closely at student writing.