Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Another Brick in the Wall

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Jonathan Vander Els and Ellen Hume-Howard

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction, Learn Lessons from the Field

Writing Wall PLC
Writing Wall PLC

Looking closely together at students’ work can unveil a treasure trove of insights to guide educators as they reflect on their purpose, assess their progress, and plan strategies for reaching all students more successfully. Students’ experiences are enhanced when teachers develop an awareness of where they fall along a continuum of learning. Writing, for instance, is a content area that lends itself well to studying student work within a continuum, and has been the focal point in guiding our teachers at Memorial Elementary School as we align our work not only within each grade level, but vertically within all grade levels in our school.

Getting to this point, however, was a three-year journey that continues to evolve as we learn more about not only our students’ skills and needs, but also about our own staff needs related to instruction and aligning our assessment of student work.

A visitor checking out classrooms at the Memorial Elementary School might be surprised at how traditional everything looks. It’s the little things that might catch your eye, however; the charts and graphs on the walls depicting student learning targets, the student work displayed with the standards identifying the learning outcomes, and the conversations students have identifying precisely what they are working on. But one artifact stands out. It’s what we like to refer to as “The Wall.” The Wall is a writing wall that represents the writing analysis that the entire faculty engaged in and has been reviewing over the course of the school year. The writing wall is an example of blending working with the standards and reviewing students’ work.

With the Wall, we have found success not only in analyzing writing, but also in developing a greater understanding as a staff, K-5, about our vertical alignment. This was the next step in our journey as a Professional Learning Community. We felt that our individual team structures were quite solid; there was a level of interdependence among the members of our grade level teams. We wanted to expand this vertically, so that a student’s experience from grade to grade was not only consistent, but that the content they were studying built upon their previous learning and experiences to the highest degree possible.

We chose writing three years ago as our common area of focus for a few reasons.  First, it was an overall area of need for the students in our school. Our students had made great gains in reading and mathematics, but were still struggling to write critically. We knew that our focus had been so intense in reading and mathematics that we had not been able to focus on writing to the extent we would have liked. We also felt that students’ ability to write more effectively would translate across all subject areas.

Once we had formally identified writing as a school goal, we went about establishing a baseline. We decided to do this through a school-wide writing prompt. The first year, we realized very quickly that we were comparing apples to oranges. Each team had built a rubric to assess their grade level’s writing.  What we found was that the rubrics were very different, so it was difficult to compare writing between grade levels. One of the other outcomes was that the expectations across grade levels were inconsistent. In some cases, expectations at lower grade levels were more rigorous than at higher grade levels.

We found our solution to these issues by utilizing a multi-grade continuum developed by Lucy Calkins.  Through this lens, our whole staff would be analyzing writing by the same criteria.  This would result in more consistency not only within grade levels but from grade to grade. 

But we were searching for a way to put all of the pieces together to analyze our writing as a staff. Our team leaders, consisting of the assistant principal, representatives from each teaching team, and Principal Jonathan Vander Els, along with the continued guidance and consultation of Director of Curriculum Ellen Hume-Howard, decided that the best way would be to display the writing on our wall. This writing wall would allow us to visually analyze the writing we had done from kindergarten through fifth grade. Of course, we had to consider how we would represent 350 pieces of writing. We decided to make a large table, with the vertical axis representing each particular grade level, and the horizontal axis representing the level on the continuum. To account for how many students were at each particular level within the continuum, we used small stars to represent each student at each level. In this way, we could immediately see where each grade level fell overall, but also dissect where specific clusters of students were and how far away they were from where a “typical” student would be at the end of the year at each grade level. 

Because it was a developmental continuum, we had to remind ourselves that it was not based upon grade level expectations, but rather each individual child’s growth. We had guidance regarding where a “typical” student would be at each grade level, but the individual growth was also of great importance. An additional step in our teams’ process was to complete a data cycle (this is a forthcoming blog article in itself). The data cycle process requires a team of teachers to analyze the data specifically, where each student is on the continuum, and develop a plan for instruction that will help students to develop the skills necessary to progress. We are then able to look at the grade level data as well as the individual classroom data. This is crucial, as it allows for discussions related to instruction and remediation to occur, as teams identify the practices that are assisting students in being successful in their writing.

After the data analysis is complete, we take the time to debrief as an entire staff. We have established vertical teams in our school, and we take advantage of these teams to offer different perspectives on the work we are doing. For example, our vertical teams (consisting of one teacher per grade level, special educators, and reading specialists) follow a protocol that asks them to debrief using the following questions/directions to guide the conversation:

  1. What are your observations related to writing across all grade levels?
  2. Please share areas of strength from your grade level writing.
  3. Please share your grade level’s plan to assist students in realizing growth in their writing based upon the results of this assessment.
  4. What do you notice in relation to writing at this point last year? (This allows for the very important task of comparing data from year to year.)

I remember clearly during our first vertical analysis that teachers identified that there were differences in writing at the same level on the continuum. We had a great discussion as a staff around the notion that a “five is a five is a five.” That is, it shouldn’t matter what grade level a student was writing.  If it was placed as a “5” on the continuum, it should be very similar to the other “5s” that were up there. We found that it really was irrelevant what the writing physically looked like (because depending upon the grade level and the student, the appearances in writing are going to be visually quite different, as would be expected). What was within the writing was what was important. This really helped to establish “inter-rater reliability” within our staff members, to the point that when we look at a “5” now, we can agree upon why a particular piece of writing was given a particular score, regardless of the grade level the piece comes from.

The work we have undertaken has truly helped to develop us professionally. It is imbedded within the work our teachers are involved in as part of their daily practice, and it allows our school to have the conversations necessary to make impactful systemic changes. The Wall is but a microcosm of the larger work we are doing as a school and as a district, but is has allowed us the foundation to build upon as we engage in similar work in other curricular areas, or said in another way, as we add additional bricks.


Jonathan Vander Els is the principal of Memorial School in Newton, NH. Jonathan has presented at multiple conferences on competency-based grading, enhancing teacher leaders in schools, maximizing collaboration of staff through Professional Learning Communities, and providing tiered instruction. Jonathan may be followed on Twitter: @jvanderels. Ellen Hume-Howard is the District Curriculum Director for the Sanborn Regional School District (SAU 17) in Kingston and Newton, NH. She helped design the district’s K-12 competency-based grade reporting system, and continues to guide the district through the growing pains of aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment to competencies and improved student achievement.