Have you ever tried to shoot a basket without ever seeing the hoop? Imagine doing this every time you write. Of course students will question if they wrote a “good one,” or if they accomplished what the teacher wanted, or if they are “done.” When they don’t ever see the target, how will they know if they hit it?
To help your students better understand what good writing looks and sounds like in your classroom, begin utilizing anchor papers (also known as exemplar papers, benchmark writings, writing samples, etc.).
Generate a list of qualities
Begin collecting writing samples that are grade-level and/or subject area appropriate. Be prepared to reveal a strong sample of what you are looking for BEFORE students write in a particular genre, mode, or style
Put up the writing sample and dissect it with students for the characteristics of strength. Make a list of qualities, traits, skills… What do we notice about the good ones?
(See an example list of characteristics that Maureen Scane created with her fourth graders after studying strong narratives.) You could create a similar list for a strong science lab report,chapter summary, journal entry, math explanation, classroom description, or any other type of writing.
Reveal parallel examples
Of course, show students these strong writing samples on parallel topics. If you reveal a strong anchor paper on the very topic you want them to write about . . . students will inevitably copy the piece. Rather, if you want them to write up a science lab report on topic A, then reveal a lab report on Topic B. Or, if you want them to write a personal narrative about an embarrassing moment, then reveal a personal narrative on a sad moment.
The idea is for students to be able to study the characteristics of a particular type or genre of writing.
You might also use this as an opportunity to reveal weak examples. Don’t only give kids a vision of what you are looking for but also a clear picture of what you are not looking for.
Reveal developmentally appropriate samples
Kindergarten teachers, you will want to reveal samples that nudge students to meet the vision of “good” as it changes throughout the year. For example — Show them anchor papers of just pictures with details in August. Then, anchor papers with letters/words matching the pictures in late fall. And maybe, by mid-winter, you have sentences with pictures.
Be prepared with anchor papers at all stages of the writing. However, don’t end the year with the vision of “good” being simply one perfect sentence. Rather, several sentences on a single topic is better, even if it’s laced with convention errors. To see some strong end-of-the-year kindergarten anchor papers check out the examples below.
Organize Your Anchor Paper Collection
You know how important it is to show authentic examples of student work to your class, but keeping track of why you kept a certain piece is tricky. We have all collected piles of papers from one year, and then wondered why in the world we wanted a particular piece when we looked at it the next year.
Always label the sample with the specific writing skills it demonstrates (e.g., shows great beginning or has good word choice, especially paragraph 3).
Keep in mind that as you begin collecting, you’ll realize that one paper might act as an anchor for several different reasons. It’s better to have a smaller collection of papers than to try to keep track of too many. Remember to hang on to those potential anchor papers and keep track of why you like them so you can pull them out and use them next year to teach the traits.
Establish a system for grade-level teachers to share and swap anchor papers. No sense everyone collecting strong writing samples. And keep in mind, special education and resource teachers need access to multiple grade-levels. Not to mention, when switching to a new grade level, it’s very convenient to have grade-level samples on hand.