How Capistrano USD is Transforming its Writing Instruction

By Virginia Reischl

As an ELA teacher for the Capistrano Unified School District in southern California for the last 13 years, I have experienced firsthand how siloed teachers often feel. A seventh-grade teacher is preparing her students for the eighth grade, for instance—but she might not clearly understand what the eighth-grade teachers are doing in their classes.

When I became a curriculum specialist for English Language Arts in grades 6-12 two years ago, I saw that other teachers felt the same way. It’s like trying to find a piece to a puzzle by its shape only, without understanding where it fits into the overall picture.

To bring clarity and continuity to our teaching of writing skills throughout middle and high school, our history and social science curriculum specialist for secondary education, Nina Glassen, and I have been working to align our writing expectations for students from grades 6-12, and we’re also working toward a common language and common writing goals for both of our disciplines. We started the Twitter hashtag #CapoHumanities, where we highlight how students are writing more across these subject areas.

In ELA, we began the vertical alignment process last fall by assembling a team of teachers from all 12 of our middle schools and our six high schools. Our aim was to create a set of common writing rubrics, so that every teacher in grades 6-12 would know what exemplary writing should look like for all of the various grade levels—and how these skills should progress from grade six through grade 12.

We started with argumentative writing, and our goal is to repeat the process for expository and narrative writing as well.

To assemble our district-wide common rubrics, we used the Common Core writing standards as our foundation. We also looked at several additional resources and wove those into our rubrics as well. For instance, our district uses Turnitin’s Feedback Studio, a platform for checking student writing for originality and leaving drag-and-drop comments or voice recordings in response to student papers. Turnitin has a five-point writing rubric of its own, and we incorporated language from this resource into the final draft of our documents.

Our rubrics cover four key elements of argumentative writing: (1) stating a claim; (2) developing this claim; (3) cohesion among the claim, its counterclaims, and evidence; and (4) style and conventions. For each of these four elements, we have defined what student writing looks like at four levels of sophistication: developing, approaching, proficient, and skilled. We have done this separately for grades six, 7-8, 9-10, and 11-12, but in such a way that these different groupings share a common language—and there is a clear progression in these skills from grades 6-12.

That was step one of the process. Step two, which we have just completed, involved planning a common interim writing assessment across all grade levels. We created an argumentative writing prompt that all ELA teachers will give to their students in the fall and another in the spring. These prompts are based on themes developed within the curriculum, so they can be integrated seamlessly into instruction. The prompts cover different topics for each of the various grade level groupings, but the instructions are the same. The point is that all students in grades 6-12 will be writing an argumentative essay based on the same format and expectations, and scored with our common writing rubric.

Giving common interim assessments will provide us with samples of student writing that we can compare across grade levels. In step three of the process, which will take place after we give our first assessment, we’ll convene another team of teachers from all of our secondary schools to calibrate the results.

During this calibration phase, we will score and discuss students’ writing across the various grade levels together. The goal is for teachers to be able to see what developing, approaching, proficient, and skilled argumentative writing looks like at each grade level, so that sixth-grade teachers see what is happening in grade 12 and vice versa. The more teachers are aware of these expectations, the better informed their own teaching will be.

Our history and social science teachers are a year ahead of ELA in this vertical alignment plan. They gave common writing assessments to students this past school year, and I was fortunate to sit in on the calibration process. It was phenomenal. The conversations these teachers were having about students’ writing were incredibly rich, and it was such a learning process for the teachers. They were able to share ideas and learn from each other. I heard many conversations that went something like this: “Your students did great with citing text-based evidence; how did you teach this in your classroom, and what can I learn from your approach?” They were collaborating on strategies and helping each other across the different school sites.

Aligning our goals for student writing across grades 6-12 helps teachers see the larger picture of what we are trying to accomplish in graduating students who can think critically, write clearly and persuasively, and analyze the quality of an argument. But it also helps students understand what we expect from them. And that’s our ultimate goal: to empower students to take ownership of their learning.

With this process we are implementing, students will be able to see that their writing assessments aren’t just one-time events that have no larger, connected purpose. Instead, they’ll know they will have this common assessment in the fall and spring of every year, and they’ll understand that these assessments are building toward something. They can track not only their proficiency but also their growth toward clearly defined expectations for their writing.

My ultimate goal is to administer these common assessments digitally and store the results in a digital portfolio that will follow students through the various grade levels. Then, wherever they go, they can take this record of their growth and proficiency with them.

The response to this initiative among our teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. Most immediately see the value in what we’re doing, and having teachers from all schools and grade levels involved in the process has helped ensure their buy-in. We have tried to be both transparent and equitable in how we have approached this work.

We formed separate collaborative teacher teams to design our common rubrics and to design the writing prompts, and we’ll do the same for the calibration teams. Each of these teams met during in-service professional development days, and our district was generous enough to hire substitute teachers to cover the participants’ classes, so we weren’t asking volunteers to meet after school or on weekends. Once the committees had finished their work, the ELA department chairs at each school site shared these recommendations with their staff, and we arrived at a consensus so that all teachers felt they had a voice in the process.

Of course, as with any new initiative, there have been a few teachers who have expressed skepticism that this would be just another district mandate they would have to follow. In talking with those teachers, I have tried to emphasize that this will make writing a more reflective and purposeful activity, giving students a chance to evaluate their own progress from year to year. Students won’t just be writing an essay and then tossing it into a box and forgetting about it.

Writing is hard. It’s hard to put your ideas into words and have others judge them. I want students to feel confident in their abilities, while giving them the tools to take charge of their own learning.

In bringing clarity and continuity to our teaching of writing across multiple grade levels and academic disciplines, we are helping our teachers become more effective. And we’re helping students observe their own yearly progress toward plainly articulated goals. In both respects, our students will ultimately benefit from the work we are doing.

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Virginia Reischl is an ELA teacher and secondary curriculum specialist for the Capistrano Unified School District in southern California. Connecct with her on Twitter: @ReischlVirginia

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