Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance


Last week I shared how a group of third and fourth grade teachers deepened their students’ understanding of realistic fiction by introducing the concept of character flaws. Framing instruction around this vision definitely helped make the students’ stories more powerful. But once they began to develop ideas in which characters were complicit in the problems they faced and had to change to solve them, there was still lots of teaching to do. And we determined that teaching not just by returning to the unit plan but by using the critical practice of looking at student work.

looking-at-student-workTeachers, of course, look at student work all the time, often on their own, as they check assignments or pre- and post assessments for the purpose of evaluating or seeing if the students got something or not (which, if they haven’t, usually means the next step is reteaching). Writing in Educational Leadershipauthors Angie Deuel, Tamara Nelson, David Slavit and Anne Kennedy call this “the proving approach” to looking at student work, which is guided by the question, Did the students get it or not? And that’s different, they write, from what they call “the improving approach,” which teachers should ideally do collaboratively in order to explore a different question: What are students thinking?

According to the authors, using an improving approach to looking at work supports

“more generative conversations about student work. Teachers’ discussions yielded different questions that teachers wrestled with; those questions led to additional questions and sometimes to spirited debates about what teaching and learning should look like. Teachers sharpened their thinking about instruction, learning styles, content, formative assessment, the role of the teacher, and student engagement.”

This approach to looking at student work was precisely what led the teachers I worked with to rethink the way students were planning their stories. And studying the students’ work, we also realized that we needed to think deeper about what we teaching them not just about planning but drafting and revising.

To see what I mean, take a look at both this fourth grade student’s story mountain along with his initial draft and consider what the student reveals about his understanding of both planning and writing stories—that is, what do you think is going on in his head? story-mountain-sample-2


In a sense this student did exactly what he’d been asked to do: He filled in all the story mountain boxes and used that to create a first draft. He also revealed an understanding of the concept of a climax and, perhaps, that characters need to change in order to solve their problems. But if you looked carefully at the first three event boxes, you may have noticed that he seems to have broken down one event into three, which suggests he has a fuzzy idea of what a story event is and how stories tend to complicate things before they resolve them. Additionally, he doesn’t seem to have a vision of the difference between planning and drafting, as he seemed to rewrite what he wrote in the boxes for his draft with only a few added details.

ruby-the-copycat-coverRecognizing these misconceptions, we then had to think about how to address them, which is one of the challenges of an improving approach. That’s because, as the Educational Leadership authors write, “taking an improving stance often unearths the formidable complexities of teaching and learning that stay hidden when the focus is on making cutoff scores.” We considered, for instance, offering a lesson on dialogue or leads, but while those would provide students with a strategy for drafting, it might not give them that deeper understanding of the difference between planning and drafting and of summaries and scenes. So we returned to one of our mentor texts and designed a lesson, which I then taught, that explicitly addressed those misconceptions while also providing a vision of craft.

To implement the lesson, I first created a chart that showed what Ruby the Copycat author Peggy Rothman might have put int the Event #1 box if she’d filled out a story mountain worksheet:


Then once the students had gathered on the rug, I introduced the chart then read the following from Rothman’s book, asking them to consider this question (which I invite you to think about, too): How are these pages different from what’s in the box?  ruby-the-copycat-1



Of course, kids being kids, the first thing they noticed was the book said Ruby sat behind Angela, not next to her as I’d written. But as you’ll see below, they went on to notice much more, beginning with the fact that there were more descriptive words.


Because I didn’t want them to arbitrarily add more descriptive words to their pieces for the simple sake of being more descriptive, I asked if they could give me an example, which brought out the lines about Ruby tiptoeing and looking at Angela’s bow. Building on that, I then asked if they thought those details did more than just describe what Ruby was doing, and the students all said yes. Those details gave them clues about Ruby—that she might be shy or want to ‘lay low’ and that she admired Angela’s bow and might want to copy it.

imageIn this way the students were grasping another concept I wrote about in an earlier post on show, don’t tell: that writers actually show and tell, conveying information through the details they choose. And the students thought the dialogue was doing this as well. It gave the reader a hint about Ruby’s problem which, to the delight of the observing teachers, one of the students named as foreshadowing.

Studying the beginning of a mentor text this way definitely gave the students a deeper vision of a scene versus a summary and of planning versus drafting. But having a vision doesn’t automatically mean being able to replicate it on your own. For that learners, be they children or adults, need additional practice, and I’ll share how we offered that in another post. For now, though, try to keep that distinction in mind: Are you proving or improving when you look at student work?

22 thoughts on “Determining Next Instructional Steps: Looking at Student Work Through an Improving Stance

  1. This is such a clear and helpful post for those just learning ways to help students (and teachers) stretch their specific understanding of craft moves!! Wonderful as always! And thank you. I will share.

  2. Vicki,
    I love that this is not “just” adding dialogue but digging deeply into the text to figure out both the “What and Why” that Rothman did in “Ruby the Copycat”.This is absolutely why mentor texts are needed.

    I wonder if planning with “boxes” misleads the students into a greater importance for “filling the boxes” and completing the task rather than “thinking” about the “draft” in order to determine how best to reveal the story elements to the reader?

    • Think you’re absolutely right, Fran about how students tend to view worksheets. Too often they see them as a task or assignment to complete, not a tool to help them think, which is why I like the kind of Vonnegut story mapping I shared earlier. And I have to wonder whether we, as teachers, perpetuate that belief by modeling for kids how to fill out the boxes, not engage in the deeper thinking, which involves considering–and playing with–possibilities.

      • And heaven forbid – revising our thinking. Yesterday I tried . . . but after more thought I wondered if . . . might make my thinking even clearer!

      • Good morning, Fran! Just had to share that as I was writing comments, it occurred to me that “I wondered if . . . ” might be a useful sentence starter for looking at student work. I don’t always like sentence stems and templates because, just like graphic organizers and worksheets, they can limit thinking, not open it up. But “I wonder if” might really help teachers stay in that considering possibilities mode, which is so important. Now back to my coffee!

  3. You always makes me think about things I never knew I should be thinking about. But then, when you bring the topic up, it makes perfect sense and Iwonder why I never thought about it before!

    Appreciate the explanation of “proving” and “improving”, and the difference between looking at student work through the lens of “proving”, and when students didn’t get it, reteaching, which often means literally just teaching it again IN THE SAME WAY versus “improving”, meaning not just students improving their performance but teachers improving the way they teach.

    Thank you, Vicki, for always pushing my thinking. I need it.

    • You’re more than welcome, Allison. The teachers, kids and coach I worked with in that district really pushed my thinking, and discovering that article gave me some clear language to talk about an important distinction in looking at student work. Which means, I’m always learning, too – and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  4. Thank you for this perfectly timed post! I’ll be working with teachers during the next few weeks to look at the information they’ve been gathering about their students. The distinction between “proving” and “improving” is a critical one, but can also be easy to forget. Your explanation, as well as the article you link to, will help me guide our conversations by asking that all-important question: “What are students thinking?”

    Your lesson using Ruby the Copycat is brilliant, and I’m looking forward to sharing it with colleagues in the future. Thank you, as always, for being such an inspiration!

    • I, too, was thrilled to discover that article, which made such a clear and meaningful distinction about looking at student work. From my own work, though, I know that sometimes teachers can be reluctant to really dig into what kids seem to not understand because it can feel like a criticism of their teaching. I have no doubt, though, that you can create an environment to move teachers past that. And when that happens, it’s so powerful, for teachers, kids and those of us who work with them. But . . . NCTE?

      • Got it! We had to decide whether to go to Italy this year or do some renovation on our place, and renovating won. Just let me know, though, if you do decide to go and we’ll find some time to connect!

  5. It’s a bit spooky. Every post I read of yours is exactly what need. The big idea: “What are students thinking?” is at the core, always. If we can’t get close that understanding, students won’t internalize. The quick fix of adding dialogue or description feels checklist driven and doesn’t get to the heart of it. Ruby is brilliant as is your thinking. Thank you!

    • I’m so glad, Julieanne, that this was needed. But I think it’s because many of us are on similar journeys, wrestling with what else we can do to really impact kids’ learning. And your comment makes me think of another important distinction: I work for an international organization of schools whose mission is to provide sustained, systemic professional development to maximize student learning – versus achievement. I wonder if we gravitate toward those quick fixes because we’re focused on achievement, not learning, which my hunch is we both believe should always be the ultimate goal.

      • Yes, I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head. I did this lesson with my students this week and I believe it produced results that went way beyond the lesson itself. They had to really think before they could do. Leaning versus achievement.

      • Sorry, Vicki and Julieanne, but I had to jump in here. I think you just nailed it on the head, Vicki. The focus on achievement, instead of learning, is absolutely a huge stumbling block, in my opinion, based on my experience.
        You’ve done it again, ‘vicki: so eloquently put into words what’s been rattling around in my brain. Thank you!

  6. So subtle and yet so powerful…proving versus improving. It reminds me of Dweck’s mindsets in that teachers reading student work with a fixed or growth mindset. Love your blog as you know!! SO excited you are going to be with us this summer!!

    • It is indeed a wonderful distinction and you’re absolutely right, taking an improving stance, vs. a proving one, puts teachers in a growth mindset, which is so important. And I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am about next summer at UNH! Two weeks in a beautiful place with people committed to learning!

      • Yes, I will be at UNH next summer for their two week session (which, if I’ve got the dates right is July 3-17), along with Tom Newkirk and Rachel Small. And boy, would it be fabulous is you were there!

  7. Pingback: From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings | To Make a Prairie

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