Mystery Spot

In a prior post, I shared an overview of what my site was planning for our reform efforts. This garnered some comment, including a whole post in Tom Hoffman’s Tuttle SVC blog, about how plans to use writing as the platform for our reform of student work was mis-aligned. I’d guess that most folks response to being told, “your reform program won’t work” would be to either agree, or disagree. I don’t think I expressed a really strong opinion on that particular aspect of our program, but I’ll commit myself now by saying that I do think it’s a good idea. Before I get into that though, I want to talk about Tom’s post, and why I thought it was a good one.

Since Tom has not only been witnessing reform from the outside, but actually came to Rhode Island in the first place to take part in a school reform, I have to respect not just his keen intelligence, but experience (I did get that part of your bio right Tom?).  Reforms are a tricky thing. In addition to getting your staff on the “same page” (pick your favorite analogy here folks, “herding cats”, “herding snakes”, “herding worms”) you need to also allow for criticism and questions that will hopefully keep you from doing something really stupid. It is a really difficult business for an administrator choosing staff because while sheep-like adherence looks good as you start a reform, it will lead to lack of ownership as things roll-out. You need to have teachers comfortable enough with themselves to call “b.s.” on what will not or may not work. I place Tom’s critique in that category. My post did not have a lot of details (mostly to save my readers from boredom) about how the writing program would look, or why it was a good idea. That left Tom with a lot of concerns.   He is asking really critical questions that, if they can’t be answered well are a sign of trouble.

Tom’s basic point was, why would you concentrate on writing if that isn’t even tested directly? First,  I think that this is a narrow view of “teaching writing”. While there are aspects of writing instruction that will pertain just to writing (and they are multiple choice tested on that as Mathew points out), writing can also be used to have students reflect and be assessed on other standards like comprehension, or literary analysis.  Why would this work? If students can do a written response to question about the material, they are in a good position to correctly figure out the multiple choice answer for that question. I’m in the computer lab, and not the classroom, so I’m guessing this will not be the only approach.  Kids will likely be getting some prep on testing strategies (e.g., “here is  distractor kids, learn to spot it and ignore it”), but it will not be the main component of our reform. The overall reform model, Data Wise, that provides the “structure” for what we’re doing, has a preference for more formative assessment and less or more strategic use of data like benchmark assessments. It also requires that teachers do what they call triangulating, or using multiple data sources when assessing a student’s progress. Teachers can’t just rely on district benchmarks, or teacher created quizzes based on released test questions. They will also need other forms of data, like student writing. This has both intuitive and intellectual appeal to me.

Why do I think this will work, besides being in the warm glow of the period before school starts? This collaborative approach to doing reflective data practice and emphasis on writing  seems to have worked well for teachers I respect, like Larry Ferlazzo, and Bill Ferriter. Since the reflection is supposed to be “evidence-based”, and teachers will be looking at both multiple-choice benchmarks and writing, as the year goes on, we should have a pretty good idea if it is living up to my expectations, or is mis-aligned as Tom suggests. I understand his criticisms because prior efforts at our site did lack alignment with tested standards. What we are creating will still have students working on tested standards, but using writing as one of the tools to express their knowledge.

The program we will be using, Write Tools, is based on the work of Douglas Reeves who is best known for his work on so-called 90-90-90 schools. Those are schools of high poverty, high minority students, where 90% of the students are proficient.  His findings were that the schools that did make that level of performance had a number of characteristics, and important among them was there was an emphasis on non-fiction (or expository) writing. Since this is the same fellow that is writing the forward to the training manual for Write Tools, I didn’t want to stop there.

I decided to look at some programs that I respect and have worked, that used writing, but were not based on the Write Tools or Reeves directly (although almost all the writing programs out there owe something to Reeves work). I didn’t have too look too far. Here is Gail Desler talking about the program at David Reese Elementary. The post focuses on online work being done by students, but in a recent conversation, she discussed how important writing was to that school’s “turn-around”. Gail’s work has always emphasized writing by students and is grounded in the idea that this builds language, understanding, and comprehension, so at Reese students write on blogs, and write scripts for podcasts and videos they create.  Another local district, San Juan Unified, is using Writers’ Workshop to improve student writing and over-all language arts knowledge (and dare I say, test scores). They are pleased with initial results in the program with their Title 1 schools, especially the middle schools. I think many districts in the area are coming back to writing because we’ve tried a decade of scripted, direct instruction-based language arts curriculum, and while it gave an initial “bump” to test-scores they didn’t last, and the kids have gotten turned off to school and learning. Writing instruction, if done correctly, should help with that, but only time will tell.

Tom has done a fantastic job of looking at alignment issues with initiatives like Common Core standards that have really helped me think critically about my own practice, such as how sometimes by the end of a unit my objectives do not match the standards/goals I had for the unit. I highly recommend the following posts to see what I mean:

by posted under practice/pedagogy | 2 Comments »    
2 Comments to


  1. September 3rd, 2010 at 7:09 am      Reply Tom Hoffman Says:

    My “I, of course, have no problem with this general concept pedagogically” aside in the original post could have been vastly stronger, as in, “I, of course, helped design and open an urban high school with a very heavy emphasis on writing.” And it wasn’t until the school was named one of the “lowest-performing” that I could even conceive of the idea that those writing scores that had appeared right beside the reading scores on our reports for the past ten years meant nothing in the eyes of our “education leaders.”

    I can all to easily imagine them smiling condescendingly to themselves while reading my subsequent emails: “Writing scores? Who told this guy those were important?”

    So… my perspective on this is rather extreme.

    Also, I would add that lots of writing with just enough test prep is probably a good formula. We took a more cavalier approach to the actual tests, so in past years the kids would do, say, very well on the response to literature writing prompt and poorly on the reading section. Once you get to that point it should be relatively easy to make sure they understand the structure of the reading test.

    • September 3rd, 2010 at 7:36 am      Reply alicemercer Says:

      This is exactly the reason why I didn’t blow off your post. I knew you spoke perhaps from bitter experience. It’s real easy to see this as the best of all possible reforms in the early days, but only time and execution will tell.
      Besides, you’re a really good writing, so I take it as a compliment when you write about me.

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