We’ve Got Anchor Papers…Now What?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with instructional coaches and grade-level teams across my district to identify anchor papers. Each grade level has given student writers a common writing assessment followed by a half day of teacher professional learning. Through a process of unpacking informational writing standards, thin-slicing student work, and consensus-building, each grade level has surfaced a small collection of anchor papers that have been added to our learning management system for all to access. Each of these anchor papers serves as an example of the writing we expect our students to do by the end of the school year to demonstrate the skills within a specific genre standard.

The important question to ask now, though, is What do we do with these anchor papers?

Here are just a few ideas we’ve generated to get this work underway.

Use Anchor Papers as an Assessment Tool

One of the most common ways to use anchor papers is as a tool for assessing the work of other writers. Teachers may choose to use these papers as a model for their expectations by comparing other students’ writing to the anchor paper.

Teachers can work together–or work with students–to annotate (mark up) anchor papers to identify specific places where students demonstrate skills.

Tip for Success: To make this work most productive, grab a stack of sticky notes and annotate the anchor paper as a learning community prior to using it for assessment. Note specific parts within the paper where the student has demonstrated the skills you expect to see (i.e. topic sentence, paragraphing, supporting evidence). Identifying specific strengths within the paper will provide clarity around expectations for other students’ writing.

Use Anchor Papers as a Student Self-Assessment Tool

Just as teachers can use anchor papers to support our assessment, students can also use them for self-assessment. By providing an annotated anchor paper–and teaching each annotated skill along the way–students may choose to use the anchor paper as another variation of a writer’s checklist. It will provide concrete examples of expectations and support students in unpacking and understanding the components of strong writing.

Create an Anchor Chart by Annotating with Students

In addition to explicitly modeling skills for students and engaging them in guided practice in our writing workshops, students benefit tremendously from seeing examples of expectations within work written by other kids. Try selecting an anchor paper that best fits your unit of study and using it throughout the unit as you teach skills to mark up and use as an anchor for students to refer back to during their independent writing.

Tip for Success: Try enlarging the anchor paper (or making sure it is digitally accessible to older students) to build agency and independence in using this tool.

Support Small Groups and Conferences

Just as it’s beneficial to have a few strong mentor texts in your conferring and small group toolkits, it is also powerful to have an anchor text or two to use with students in these settings. By pinpointing a specific skill to work on, an anchor text can be used as an exemplar to demonstrate skills and strategies for students to replicate in their own work.

Engage in Authentic Revision

One thing we reinforce for writers over and over again is that a piece of writing is never truly finished– opportunities for revision are always present, even when a piece is published. Anchor papers can be an excellent tool for teaching minilessons around revision. For example, in looking at informational writing that was completed as an “on demand” assessment in a short period of time, many of our fourth and fifth grade teachers noticed that students did not include facts from research or quotations in their informational pieces due to lack of time. While these anchor papers still demonstrated a majority of our mastery-level expectations, noting the lack of these specific skills makes them the perfect tool for teaching these skills. Using an anchor paper to model (or engage students in guided practice) the process of adding quotations or evidence from research will both strengthen the lesson and provide a concrete example.

Tip for Success: When looking at anchor papers as a learning community, start a collaborative list of possible teaching points for each specific paper. This will not only save time in the long run, but will also allow everyone to benefit from the collective knowledge of a larger group of educators.

Build a Learning Progression

Though my teachers only had time in our professional learning space to identify mastery-level informational anchor papers, over time our goal is to build a collection of resources across multiple skill levels. These work samples may then be used with both teachers and students to build learning progressions, a concrete representation of how one skill grows from a more basic level toward grade level expectations.

Tip for Success: Before beginning this work as a professional learning community, have clearly defined expectations for what the development of writing should look like over time.

Communicate with Families

When sitting down in conferences with caregivers, it’s often difficult to explain writing expectations–and how a particular student may or may not be demonstrating these skills. Providing a few examples of anchor papers that demonstrate mastery-level work (or a progression of papers) will help support conversations, clarify expectations, and allow both the teacher and the caregivers to name and understand specific goals for the writer.

Some Final Words of Advice…

When you engage in the work of identifying and using anchor papers generated by your own population of students, here are a few critical pieces of advice:

  • Make sure to remove all student identifiers from the work. When possible, it is recommended to use work from past students. Do not use the work of a student in your classroom as an anchor paper–if the work is from a current student, make sure the student is from a different classroom or school and cannot be identified.
  • Provide students with a few anchor papers, not just one. One of the most important things we try to teach developing writers is that each writer has a unique voice and style. Anchor papers should provide examples, not the “one right way” to do something.
  • Remember that anchor papers are examples, not perfection. When my teachers engaged in professional learning around this work, my language was very specific: We identified the paper that best represented mastery, not the best paper. There is a fine distinction between the two, and my words were to reinforce the need for anchor papers that serve as a teaching tool.
  • Prioritize the process as much as the product. As a community of professional learners, our teachers walked out of their half day of professional learning with a bank of anchor papers to use with students, but it was the process of discussing expectations, reading through student work together, discussing and comparing, and clarifying misconceptions that made this learning powerful. While it may be tempting to invite teachers to share anchor papers individually for collective use, it is through the process of identifying and using them that we learn and grow as educators.

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