differentiation in writing with on demands

one of the sweet moments in teaching is when we look at our students’ on demand pieces from the beginning and end of a unit (or better yet, the beginning and end of the year) and see the enormous growth they have made.  

on demands, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, are writing pieces that are written on demand – in one writing workshop period without any preparation ahead of time – and reflect what the writers are able to do independently, because the students draft, revise, edit, and then submit (publish) the piece without any conferring with partners or teachers.

on demands are an important part of our assessment and planning for a unit, and are the first and last days of each unit of study. our process for using on demands goes like this…

  • we read students a prompt according to the genre we are starting and give them one writing period to complete an on demand without any instruction. the prompt might sound like this for an informational unit, “today we’re starting our feature article unit. think about a topic you know a lot about, that you’re an expert on. you’re going to write a feature article that will teach something about your topic. you can think about categories of your topic and examples that fit in each category. to write your feature article, you might think about what you know about other types of writing and use that as you write your feature article.”
  • we read each on demand piece with a checklist in front of us similar to the one below. as we read each piece, we mark the checklist to show how each piece did with different categories of writing, using a + (strong evidence of doing this), / (attempting this/some evidence) or x (little or no evidence of this).
    Screen Shot 2015-07-30 at 10.08.00 AM

    this is the on demand checklist we’ve used for our fantasy unit of study. the box at the top has the prompt we give students to introduce the on demand. the highlighted columns are some of the work we anticipate being newer to our class; we’ll confirm this in the on demand data, and then plan the unit accordingly.

  • once we’ve finished reading all the pieces, we use the checklist to:
    • #1: plan goals for our unit. so if we noticed in the chart that the majority of our students were not proficient in telling the story in the moment, like it’s happening now, rather than summarizing, then we might choose writing in a storytelling voice as one of our class goals and plan mini lessons for the unit accordingly….say more about this
    • #2: guide individuals in planning their own goals. we usually narrow down the choices to 3 different areas, usually dependent upon the three areas that the class was weakest in as a whole or areas that we know are newer to our students. we also try to have different types of goals – so, not all goals related to mechanics and not all related to craft, but a mixture. for example, our goals for our first unit of study – typically personal narrative (true stories from our lives) – could be to write using a storytelling voice, include setting details so the reader knows and can picture when and where the story is taking place, and using end punctuation to separate sentences. once we’ve decided on our goals, we ask students to look at their on demand and decide what their goal will be. we have a pretty good idea of what goals would be best for certain students based on their on demand, and we will definitely nudge students in that direction. so, let’s say we have a student who’s chosen to use end punctuation to separate sentences, but we see lots of evidence of this already but very little evidence of writing using a storytelling voice (this student is writing summaries). we would ask the student to use his piece to show us the parts that helped them choose his goal. this usually helps them to see something similar to what we’ve seen.
    • #3: plan for conferences and small groups. our on demands give us a lot of information about our writers, not only about the writing craft they’re using or beginning to gesture toward, but also about their writing behaviors. we’ll notice students who need to take a lot of breaks or have difficulty getting started. we can use the on demand data to inform our instruction during conferences and small groups. for students we notice having difficulty getting started, for example, we might create a small group during the gathering days to support these students in using the generating strategies that were taught during mini-lessons so that they’re successful with having many different story possibilities. for those students who had difficulty sustaining the writing time during the on demand, we might gather them in a small group on drafting day and teach them a stamina strategy like using x goals on their paper to push them to write more faster.
  • at the end of the unit of study, we devote a second writing workshop period to an on demand, this one to be used as a post-assessment of the unit. this writing piece is so important in showing us what our students are now doing independently, in a way that their published piece from the unit will not. the published piece reflects work across several weeks, and reflects students’ work immediately following conferences, small groups, and mini-lessons. in other words, it’s more directly affected by the teaching we’re doing, and less an example of what the writer has truly internalized and can do independently. we read the final on demands using the same chart we did at the start of the unit. (we tend to mark all three pieces from the unit – the first on demand, the published piece, and the final on demand – all on the same chart, so that each child has three symbols in each column. we use different colors for each piece so we know what piece is being represented. so, for example, we might use orange for everyone’s first on demand, green for the published piece, and blue for the final on demand.) once we’ve read the on demands, we notice areas of growth as well as areas that aren’t quite sticking yet. this allows us to plan for some ongoing small groups to address and support this work, even after the unit of study ends. it also gives us an idea as we enter our next unit in the same type of writing (e.g. if we’ve just finished a personal narrative unit and are moving to realistic fiction, we can expect some of what was true for a writer in personal narrative to be true in realistic fiction, though we recognize, for sure, that the slight difference in genre may be more appealing to certain writers and therefore boost the quality of their writing (or maybe the difference is more challenging and affects their writing in a negative way, which is why it’s important to start and end every unit with an on demand)).

*a thought about final on demand writing pieces versus final published pieces: these pieces generally look very different from one another. the former is done in one class period independently while the latter is stretched across several weeks with a lot of support in the form of mini lessons, conferences and small groups. 


7 thoughts on “differentiation in writing with on demands

  1. ReadWriteThruLife says:

    Tara and Kate, another very helpful blog post on differentiation in the writing workshop. I love that you use on demands at the beginning of a unit to plan your instruction and then at the end to see what they have internalized. Please help me understand a little bit how you differentiate and give choice. Do you plan a unit with mini lessons about a particular genre – say a feature article and then on a day to day basis let kids decide if they want to work on a feature article or another genre such as a small moment? I’m a little bit confused about just how much choice for which genre students are given in the day to day writing workshop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • taraandkate says:

      thanks for the question! So choice comes mostly with choosing the strategies within a genre we’re doing as a class. So if we are teaching a series of revision mini lessons for feature article, it’s up to the students, mostly, which revision strategies they’ll try. We think this makes sense because there are certain genres that each grade level is committing to teaching and for the kids to learn, so it wouldnt work for kids to keep opting out of the genres. When we do independent projects (an upcoming post), those are in any genre (unless your class needs less open ended). We’ve also seen some teachers do an open genre unit of study rather than ongoing independent projects, and kids have choice then about the genre. There isn’t really choice with regards to on demands, except for topic. Does this answer your question? Bring up more? Please let us know!


      • ReadWriteThruLife says:

        Kate and Tara – ahh, it’s all crystal clear now. This is actually what I was thinking since your blog mostly did talk about differentiation with strategies. Thank you so much for being so willing to coach me.

        Liked by 1 person

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