Check Yes for a Writer’s Checklist

It’s been a hot minute since I used a checklist in my practice as an educator. I’d largely abandoned the checklist because it felt too simple, too bossy, too uninspired. But, as part of learning the in’s and out’s of being an instructional coach, I’ve confronted these assumptions–in theory and am starting to in practice. In fact, for a recent professional development, I created three different checklists about formative assessment from which my colleagues could choose to mediate their reflection. Watching them interact with these checklists rekindled my interest in the checklist as a tool promoting growth. So, I began to reimagine my writing classroom through that lens.

A writer’s checklist …. 
Reinforces the process or its parts 
Insures nothing is overlooked (curse of knowledge!)
Encourages reflection 
Provides direction
Allows for agency 

Reinforces the Process or Its Parts 

When I taught ninth and tenth grade English (early in my career), I created checklists for some of the writing students created: for the more formalized research paper, for instance, a checklist for folding in sources or for how to begin and end.  Though more prescriptive in some ways than I care to remember (see Allows for Agency), for some of my students this correlated more directly with the student samples, modeling, and mini lessons we explored. And, the concision of the checklist provided clarity and accessibility. 

Insures Nothing Is Overlooked 

Beyond providing clarity and direction, the checklist may also ensure writers employ the strategies proven to best impact their audiences. The checklist items can help users of the checklist confront that whole curse of knowledge thing.  When my colleagues used the checklists in our recent professional development, the checklist items grounded us back in the qualities of formative assessments. Of those I directly supported, I observed them grappling with a particular element of assessments and considering what adjustments they might make. They also engaged in this with a partner, an approach I used with my students (back in those early days) as well. This not only insures the quality but also promotes the dialogue that leads to reflection.

Encourages Reflection 

The checklist acts as a third point, a neutral document with a set of qualities that partners or small groups can reference or as the neutral point of comparison when placed adjacent to work. For students, it helped guide their peer revision and editing processes. For my colleagues, it prompted them to consider whether or not certain elements were present or what it might look like if they made adjustments to their assessment. In fact, these kinds of reflections help point learners in a direction when otherwise there may be too many ways to go. 

Provides Direction 

For learners, the checklist may break revision (or reimagining or retooling or relearning) into actionable steps so that they are not overwhelmed, directionless. For my colleagues , the checklist helped them zero in on one direction they may take to adjust their assessments and the necessary steps. Any no’s my students received from their peers on their checklists allowed them to seek additional feedback, ideas, and resources during our conferences. The precision of the checklist can incite more precise action. And the learner gets to choose what adjustment and how to adjust it, fostering more ownership.
Allows for Agency 

This is perhaps the most critical function of the checklist, and it’s the function I didn’t recognize in the classroom and have underemployed as a coach. With my more novice ninth and tenth grade writers, I got by with those prescriptive checklists. But with my AP Language and Composition writers and my College Prep senior writers, I didn’t use checklists (all too often). My colleague and I–in determining whether or not to use checklists–ultimately decided that checklists would do little to foster the kind of autonomy we hoped to nurture in our students. We felt it might be telling them what to do in a time where they needed (developmentally) to drive their own processes. And we weren’t wrong in that. Using that same prescriptive approach with seniors as I used with freshman would not have been productive. But we shouldn’t have wholly abandoned the checklist. We could have used checklists to elevate their autonomy. Maybe students could have built their own checklists based on a mentor text set. Maybe students modify a checklist–adding or subtracting qualities– based on the needs of their audience. Maybe students create a checklist of all the strengths they possess as writers they want to make evident in their writing. There are possibilities here. There were possibilities for my colleagues, too: why didn’t I invite them to adjust the checklist they selected in ways that made sense for their students and for them? Clearly, I needed to use the checklist on checklists!

A checklist should not stifle. A checklist should not reject. A checklist should not merely confirm or affirm. A checklist should elevate (my other word for 2020). Yes!

Kristin Jeschke is watching the Cubs’ manager David Ross closely to see how he shifts from player and teammate to coach. She’s begun a mental checklist of his moves so far but most appreciates his intentionality. Follow Kristin on Twitter @kajeschke.

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