Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

03.06.18Ashley LaGrassa: How Formative Writing Built Buy-In and Engagement

TLAC Fellow Ashley LaGrassa, an 8th grade English teacher at Rochester Prep has spent much of this year studying writing in the classroom with us. One of the topics we’ve talked about quite a bit is the synergy between formative and summative writing. Summative writing asks students to write a final response, to have an opinion and justify it with evidence in a specific structure.  Formative writing asks students to think in writing and to use it as a tool to develop their ideas-just maybe the ones they will later justify in summative prompts. Ashley has been trying to use this distinction in her 8th grade English lessons and wrote this insightful reflection:


After attending a workshop on the differences between formative and summative writing prompts, I was curious to try adding more formative questions to my own instruction. The idea that a simple change of format might make my classroom feel safer for students, leading them to take risks and engage more deeply, was too alluring to pass up. The result was one of the most joyful lessons of the year. My 8th graders jumped in to wrestle with challenging questions pregnant with the possibility of multiple “right” answers.  Afterwards I sat down to reflect a bit on what worked and why.

The lesson focused on Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other-Dancer is the Self”  began with formative writing as part of the Do Now: “How might Alice Walker’s experiences sharecropping have influenced her writing?”

My hope in including the “might” was to help students feel safe jumping into the lesson with thoughts and rather than comprehensive answers.

As we began a review of the question, twice as many hands as usual surged into the air, eager to share out. The same positive shift in energy and confidence was visible in writing. When provided with the prompt “Reflect on the role of gender in Walker’s experience,” students went right to work. There was no flipping through the packet to stall or rewriting of the question to pass time. Rather, students began quickly jotting down their thoughts; seemingly, the sense of possibility within the question made students feel more comfortable with risk.

This risk-taking took the discussion that followed to new heights. While I planned a dozen questions to help guide students to a theme, I hardly needed to even be in the room. Students asked each other questions (“Why do you think she wants to copy what her brothers do instead of being a girl?” “Why do you say that women have scars will affect their lives?”). Within moments, they were deeply analyzing the impact the scar had on Walker in light of her gender, moving from her specific experience to a message about society at large. By asking students for their reflections, the question invited students to share all thoughts and suggested a validity in a variety of responses. This encouraged them and prepared them to take the risks necessary to have a student-led discussion.

After a few minutes of discussion, I asked: “What theme might this story suggest on the topic of gender? Write one well-crafted sentence capturing a potential theme in the box below.”

Again, pencils urgently dove in. (It’s important to note that normally when I ask a theme question, I get a least a few kiddos who stare at me as if I had just asked them to do a back flip without getting out of their desks.) With no scaffolding other than the formative question and the questioning students did of each other, all students generated accurate or nearly-there themes around gender norms and insecurity.

By this point in the lesson, I was pretty excited by how such small changes in the wording of a question (from “What is the theme?” to “What theme might this story suggest” or example) encouraged my students to take risks. I was sold, but wanted to know what students thought and felt. I named to them that some of the questions had been different today and asked what they thought.

Students shared several endearing things, (such as “We were actually able to socialize more and use each other’s ideas to come up with the theme of a story” and “I like how we get everyone’s different opinions on it”)  but I was simultaneously haunted and inspired by one in particular: “I like the fact that we get to have our own opinion based on a text.”

Students need formative questions. They need to feel that wrestling with a difficult text is a low-risk adventure–they don’t always have to have a final argument about the theme to discuss the story–with many pathways and perhaps a few obstacles.

Ironically, once students feel this way, they are more eager to engage summative prompts–those that do ask for a more formal argument–eager to make arguments about the author’s purpose and intents and eager to support these arguments with textual evidence. In a world of frequent testing, it often feels like teachers are pushed to ask only questions that are “objective-driven” and will lead to “student mastery.” However, watching the impact that formative questions had on my classroom, I deeply feel that we can arrive at such rigorous thinking and engagement only if we validate and welcome our students into a text first. So, if you’re looking for stronger ‘standards aligned’ summative responses, you might just want to try adding in a few more formative questions that let students think more freely in writing first.

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