Better marks for a happy ending

Yolanda Brooks

The written word is cherished at George H Luck elementary school in Edmonton, western Canada. You can see it on the walls, in the hand-made books displayed in the library, and the rocking chairs that sit in the corner of every classroom.

This joy for words and storytelling comes alive in Sherry Taylor's Grade 5 class when they get their daily dose of Drop Everything and Write. For the past five years the veteran teacher, who won a Prime Minister's Award for teaching excellence in 2003, has been stealing 15 minutes a day from the timetable to encourage her students to kick-start their imaginations and write. Every two weeks, each of the 28 children in the class shares their efforts and receives feedback from their surprisingly insightful peers.

"You can haul home all kinds of writing and spend hours marking it and commenting, and it doesn't necessarily change how the children write," says Ms Taylor, 53, who has been teaching for 30 years. "But here, because they have an audience and people are responding to the strengths of their writing, they are motivated and I see huge progress over the year."

The writing programme is not just an exercise in creativity; the students doing the listening work as hard as the author. They are expected to think critically about the stories and give comments that provide useful feedback and show that they understand what makes good writing and how a piece of work can be improved.

It has the potential to be a tortuous process because diffident kids might shrink into their hoodies as they mumble over a sheet of paper. But it works. The 10-year-old pupils are eager to read and they talk confidently about word choice, imaginative subject matter, hooks and storytelling technique. If this sounds too good to be true, the class takes the exercise one step further and grades the feedback comments for their level of insight. Throughout, Ms Taylor teases information and occasionally prompts, but all the students understand exactly what is expected of them and are keen to contribute.

When Lancashire headteacher Kendra Allen saw the scheme in action earlier this year, she was stunned by the level of analysis and maturity of debate.

She visited the class during a placement programme organised by the British Council. "The expectations were so high and the standard of writing was amazing. The way the children were assessing each other was incredibly forward-thinking."

Although Drop Everything and Write is a specialty of Ms Taylor's class, it fits perfectly with the school's adherence to the philosophy of Assessment for Learning.

"Assessment traditionally has been more formative, to go for the final mark," says Linda Inglis, the principal. "Assessment for Learning is assisting side by side with the child having conversation, giving quality feedback. Children can learn with and from the teachers and from each other and from themselves."

Such a collaborative approach makes pupils more informed about their learning and gives them more control over it. Instead of having to interpret marks out of 10 and alphabetical grades, they are given detailed feedback about their work, shown what is expected of them through conversation and examples, and develop skills for understanding the criteria needed for assessing work. Once this level of understanding is ingrained, pupils can plot and predict their own progress.

Traditional marking and evaluation still has a place at the school, but it is no longer the definitive word in achievement, claims Ms Inglis. Teachers do give pupils a final mark but the rich assessment process enables them to gauge more accurately the child's progress as a learner.

"It was a wonderful experience and we learned a great deal as they do things differently from England," says Ms Allen. "Children are taught assessment techniques from a young age. They expect more from the pupils because of the responsibilities they are given.

"I've started talking to the teachers at my school about introducing some assessment methods although we will only be able to do it on a mini scale."

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Yolanda Brooks

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