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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 1

Space to Learn

Implementing standards in the classroom doesn't necessarily translate into teaching to the test. One teacher has found ways to ensure that students do well on high-stakes writing tests and become lifelong learners.

Education policymakers tend to focus on the big picture of school reform, often through the lens of students' standardized test scores. Although this viewpoint is important for school reform efforts, it often ignores the teachers who develop communities where authentic learning takes place. In such learning communities, students discover knowledge for themselves, make mistakes, help one another learn, and venture into new intellectual and emotional territories. Parker Palmer calls this "creating the space where the community of truth is practiced," where participants have opportunities to learn about themselves and to build relationships with others (1993, p. xii). Without these communities, teaching and learning are reduced to technique, and students' scores are little more than numbers on a page. During the 1998–99 and 1999–2000 school years, a team of researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, visited schools in Washington State to understand more clearly how such classroom communities are created and sustained during a large-scale school reform effort.

One Child at a Time

Washington State's 1993 Education Reform Act mandated the creation of academic standards, called the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (EARLs), which are accompanied by a testing system entitled the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL). The state administers the test each spring to 4th, 7th, and 10th graders to assess student abilities in mathematics, listening, reading, and writing. Science is being added on a voluntary basis.
After nearly a decade of implementation, some questions remain: How are teachers meeting the demands of the reform? What does standards-based instruction look like? What are teachers doing to handle the pressure of a high-stakes test without teaching to it?
We found some answers in Judy Alexander's 4th grade classroom. Judy establishes the language and intention of the reform without compromising her own teaching stance or her students' learning. Rather than teaching only so that her students will perform well on the test in April, she uses the language of the reform to give her teaching focus, purpose, and meaning. As a result of her efforts, her students learn lifelong skills of good writing and thinking that extend well beyond the expectations of a test prompt.
Judy's teaching is a clear example of how to make large-scale reform happen for diverse children, one child at a time. More than 83 percent of the students in her urban school are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and the annual student turnover rate is 47 percent. Some of the students are homeless, and others have parents who work three jobs to make ends meet. Some students' families move frequently to follow the growing season, and others have immigrated from Bosnia and Ukraine and struggle daily with a new culture and language. To illustrate Judy's efforts, let's focus on how she addresses state writing standards in three crucial aspects of her teaching program: the class meeting, the read-aloud, and the assessment.

The Class Meeting

Judy uses class meetings to address the problems inherent in a classroom where children have a variety of emotional needs. She knows that students need a strong sense of belonging and ownership before they can become good writers. Class meetings provide the time and space for students to work through academic and social problems. As Daniel Goleman (1995) notes,School success is not predicted by a child's fund of facts or a precocious ability to read so much as by emotional and social measures: being self-assured and interested; knowing what kind of behavior is expected and how to rein in the impulse to misbehave; being able to wait, to follow directions, and to turn to teachers for help; and expressing needs while getting along with other children. (p. 193)
Class meetings, which last about 15 minutes, cover a range of topics, including rules and procedures for classroom behavior, curriculum issues, and field trips and celebrations. For example, Judy might ask the students how they want to share their writing with another class. Or she will ask the students what makes them nervous, and the question will spark a discussion about whether they are allowed to take breaks or ask for help during the state test.
Judy restructures each class meeting to accommodate the complexity of the students' thoughts and feelings. In her view, the meetings are the first step in implementing authentic learning and in meeting the intent of curricular reform. She believes that when students are regularly invited to create a space that meets their learning needs, they are more likely to give their full attention to the learning goals, to feel valued, to express their thoughts and feelings, to take risks, and to seek out constructive criticism (Peterson, 1992).
In contrast, when students feel uncomfortable in their classroom, they tend to learn mathematical formulas by rote or write mechanical sentences but fail to participate in deeper, conceptual learning. To learn in meaningful ways, students need to be fully and emotionally invested in their work (Sylwester, 1994).
Judy's beliefs about learning are reflected in her writing program. She wants her students' writing assignments to be important to them, so she tells them to try to capture a moment of intense sadness or joy. The best stories come from the heart, she tells her students. The result is student papers on "I Got Bit By Mick Chapman," "I Hate Being Sick," and "Second Grade Sucked." In "My Day at the Mall," one girl wrote about a time when she was shopping and realized that a pair of clingy underwear from the wash was stuck in her pants legs. These experiences find their way onto the printed page because Judy has created a space where each child is heard. In Judy's classroom, the class meeting helps create a sense of safety that enables students to write about tough or embarrassing experiences.
The freedom that Judy allows her students in writing about meaningful topics is always connected to the state's standards for writing, and she uses those criteria as the vehicle for teaching how to write narratives, autobiographies, essays, or poetry. The main entry point to teaching these genres is the read-aloud.

The Read-Aloud

During read-aloud time, Judy reads to the class from books about people who have problems that her students can relate to: making friends, losing family members, being afraid, or getting annoyed with siblings. Judy's challenge is to align students' abilities with the Essential Academic Learning Requirements for writing: to be able to write clearly and effectively, write in a variety of forms for different audiences and purposes, understand and use the steps in the writing process, and analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of written work. Judy uses read-aloud time to demystify the writing process by breaking it into components that the students can understand. For example, when teaching students to write effectively, she uses stories to point out how good writers use just the right word to make an impact on the readers' emotions. She shows students how they can make their own stories more effective by using author's craft and expert language. The way to become a good writer is to imitate good writers, she tells her students.
During one read-aloud session, Judy's students arrange themselves in the middle of the room to hear Jerry Spinelli's Knots in My Yo-Yo String (New York: Random House, 1998). All eyes are on Judy as she begins, "This chapter is called 'War.'" She reads one page into the story and stops.The first sentence—that's where you're going to get your reader's attention. It's where you say to the reader, "Listen up! I'm going to tell you something important." So listen to this sentence again. "I hate war. But when I was little, I loved it." Why do you think the author says that? Judy looks around the group, and even though some students have raised their hands, she lets the question hang and asks the students to think about inference. Judy continues to read, but after another page, interjects,Okay, I want you to pair-share about this. Why did the author love war and why did he change his mind? You have two minutes.
The children chatter excitedly and sit knee-to-knee or cross-legged as they lean toward their classmates. When the time comes to share their insights, Amber says, "The author might think that way because someone in his family was in a war, so maybe losing someone wasn't a game anymore." John adds, "He knows that it's real now, but when he was little, he thought it was just a game."
After other students share their ideas, Judy continues reading to see whether they can find the answer. Suddenly a dozen hands shoot for the ceiling. She smiles and reads the last sentence again: "I'd tell them everything and sing my head open like a box of cornflakes."
"Simile!" Miranda shouts. Judy nods, continues reading, and then stops at the sentence, "I was a burr in no one's saddle." Several students guess at the literary device used in that sentence, but can't identify the correct term. Their teacher glances to the back of the room where she and the students have written literary terms they had identified from previous books, like simile, sarcasm, foreshadowing, and personification. "I guess we need to add this one," Judy notes. "It's a metaphor." She makes a note on a yellow sticky, and illustrates with a wince and a jump in her chair what it would feel like to sit on a burr. The children laugh.
The read-aloud session gives students an opportunity to see how writers use details to turn ordinary events into memorable accounts. With their teacher's guidance, the students note nuances that might have escaped their notice if they had read on their own. The students don't mind when Judy stops the story and asks them questions because they are interested in unraveling the mystery of the writing process.
Most important, Judy uses read-aloud time to teach her students that writing is not a linear process. Good writers brainstorm, make mind-maps, draw pictures, read similar stories, write main ideas, and add and change details. They try various ways of telling the same story, reorganizing problems and endings and changing words for more impact and clarification. One student commented,Writing is like a Polaroid picture. You have no idea what it's going to turn out like until you're done. You have to wait for it to develop. And what do Judy and her students do to coax and nurture this development? The third crucial aspect to her writing program is assessment.


Good writing is not done in a vacuum. For a piece of writing to mature, the writer needs to involve other people. To this end, Judy uses a variety of assessment methods to organize, focus, and improve student writing.
Judy's assessment program is normative, and she uses various means of evaluation throughout the writing process. Such ongoing assessment helps students approach their writing less critically because they know that they can always change their work. In fact, they never finish some pieces because they lose interest in certain ideas or new ideas take precedence. Some students find this process unnerving, but as the year progresses, they relax when they realize that good writing takes time to produce and that most good pieces go through several revisions.
To reinforce this point, Judy writes with her students. For example, after learning that one of her students had lost a brother earlier that year, Judy decided to write about her own experience with the death of a college friend.
She shows students how to map and organize their ideas in an appropriate sequence to gain a powerful effect on their readers and guides them through drafting introductions, problems, and solutions, interspersing self- and peer or teacher assessment throughout the project. Initial versions focus only on characters, settings, and order of events, with subsequent revisions centering on word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions. Each of these steps is accompanied by Judy's or a student's evaluation.
Assessment in Judy's classroom is as much a part of the curriculum as the content. As a result, students are able to articulate their understanding of their own learning about the writing process. They toss around words like alliteration and genre in ways that demonstrate their command of the tools of the trade.
Interestingly, the ways in which Judy's students are learning to write runs counter to the way they are tested on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. Although state standards demand that students learn to write effectively and with proper conventions, the process of gaining that understanding and skill in Judy's classroom is often a collective venture, with students speaking to one another about how their work is evolving. Yet on the test, students work in isolation and are able to display only one or two drafts of any given piece. This makes it difficult for students to show what they really know about writing.
Although Judy feels strongly about having students write from their own experiences, she sometimes assigns prompts and asks other teachers to objectively grade the papers to prepare the students for the rigors of the test. The students learn to write for an audience other than their teacher and not to assume that the reader will know what they mean because they've had the same classroom experiences. Judy says,Sometimes they make assumptions about who is reading their papers, so they leave out a lot of things. It's good practice for them to respond to prompts and to practice having others read their work. Judy also uses a computer program from the Washington State department of education that gives examples of student writing and shows the state's scoring rubric. Students read and score the samples together. Then they compare the scores they've assigned to the examples to the scores that the state gave the same papers.
In spite of some of the drawbacks to the state test, Judy's deliberate mix of personal writing, writing from unfamiliar prompts, and multilayered assessment helps her students learn to write more authentically and meaningfully. Students express how their writing has become more "passionate" and "deliberate," with "purpose" and "flair." These students aren't merely learning the structures and forms of prewriting, drafting, and editing, but are becoming cocreators of the mental, physical, and emotional space needed for authentic, rigorous academic work. With this combination of freedom and direction, students have been able to put their efforts into learning about audience, genre, and grammar—the goals of the writing reform. More important, they are ready to move beyond the standards and become writers with purpose and power.

A Change of Heart

To realize the potential of school reform, teachers must not only correlate the multiple dimensions of materials, pedagogy, curriculum, and their beliefs about teaching and learning, but they must also attend to the emotional needs of their students (Kessler, 2000; Miller, 1993; Noddings, 1992; Sylwester, 1994). They must pay attention to these concerns over many years because such efforts only occur through a teacher's care, thoughtfulness, deliberate planning, genuinely supportive demeanor, and faith in the intelligence of children (Goleman, 1995).
The results can be amazing. Michael is one of the few mixed-race children in Judy's class. Because one of his parents is white and the other is black, he seeks out poems about being of mixed parentage and writes a few poems of his own. One day, as he described to me the evolution of his writing during the school year, he showed me a poem to illustrate his writing voice and word choice.<POEM><POEMLINE>All eyes are locked on me.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>What should I do?</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>That is my ? for you.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>If I give you three more, will you crack?</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I make you tense.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>I mean I won't, but I will</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>by ?s that you can't answer.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>And if you would answer them, I would ask</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>the hardest 2 questions possible.</POEMLINE><POEMLINE>Who am I and who are you?</POEMLINE></POEM>
Michael's powerful questions could only emerge under the guidance and care of a teacher who creates the space for the community of truth to be practiced. School reform policy not only should aim to raise test scores, but also should encourage a change of heart about what it means to educate—to help students reach their potential.

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Kessler, R. (2000). The soul of education: Helping students find connection, compassion, and character at school. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Miller, R. (1993). We need a holistic teacher training program. In C. Flake (Ed.), Holistic education: Principles, perspectives, and practices (pp. 112–114). Brandon, VT: Holistic Education Press.

Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Peterson, R. (1992). Life in a crowded place: Making a learning community. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Palmer, P. (1993). To know as we are known. San Francisco: Harper.

Sylwester, R. (1994). How emotions affect learning. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 60–65.

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