Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.


Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.


Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!


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12 thoughts on “Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

  1. […] Rebelling has always come naturally to me in teaching.  It’s no different now that I teach at the college level, but I’m lucky to have many like-minded peers to work alongside at WVU. […]


  2. Start with a Question | November 29, 2016 at 7:41 am Reply

    […] I wrote about valuing process over product in this post. […]


  3. […] I focus on designing assessments that are as unique as the units we work through.  A unit of study revolving around the exploration […]


  4. Amy March 24, 2015 at 9:55 pm Reply

    Shana, thanks for the reminder that I really do know what smart grading should look like. Seems like every year I get sucked right back into what makes my head want to blow up. I am taking your advice here word for word.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. NVMiele March 24, 2015 at 8:36 am Reply

    Reblogged this on nvmiele and commented:
    Teaching to a test is old hat and boring. The future of education should look like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. NVMiele March 24, 2015 at 8:35 am Reply

    What I would love to see is teachers utilizing poetry in the type of manner outlined here. IMO poetry is the gateway to teaching all manner of things literary. Plus they have the advantage of being shorter than most books so you could read widely perhaps without too much drain on the attention span.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy March 24, 2015 at 9:54 pm Reply

      Nicholas, did you see my most recent posts on poetry? I advocate for the same thing you suggest here. I agree, we can teach most any literary skill with poetry. I learned so much at The Frost Place last summer, and I cannot wait to go back.


    • shanakarnes March 25, 2015 at 4:10 am Reply

      Nicholas, definitely check out Amy’s writing–she has taught me a great deal about poetry as the “gateway drug” of complex literature.


  7. jackiecatcher March 24, 2015 at 7:40 am Reply

    If I could like this a thousand times over right now, I would! So many fantastic ideas…now I just need to figure out how to fit this into our shift to standards based grading, which shouldn’t be too hard. We’re shifting to a 90% summative assessments and 10% formative assessments mentality, which isn’t how learning works unfortunately. Thanks for the suggestions Shana!

    Liked by 1 person

    • shanakarnes March 25, 2015 at 4:11 am Reply

      Jackie, I like YOU a thousand times over!!! 🙂

      Maybe you could get away with doing more frequent formative assessments (lots of low-point-value assignments) and less frequent, but more weighted summative assessments (one or two 100-point grades per quarter)????

      Good luck!!


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