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Friday Feature: Dr. Debbie Powell and the Revolution of Teaching Writing

by Nikki Kroushl on February 10, 2017


via Uni-SPIRE website

“Ten or fifteen years ago,” Dr. Debbie Powell explains, “I watched undergraduate students who were tutoring children during my methods class. And I wanted them to improve that tutoring by assessing their students very early in the experience.”

This was the beginning of Uni-SPIRE, although the company itself has only existed since 2011.

Dr. Powell, a recently retired faculty member of the Watson College of Education at UNCW, has spent 45 years in education—”lots of opportunities to see needs,” she says, laughing. In the early 2000s, she saw a gap between the assessment abilities of traditional computerized writing and reading tests and the actual needs of young students.

“Everyone was using rubrics,” Powell explains. “My students were tutoring children from kindergarten to twelfth grade. How do you come up with rubrics for meeting all the needs of those children? What happens when children are even lower or even higher than the points on a rubric? How do you know the next thing the student needs? I decided that a continuum would be a more effective tool.”

So in 2004, Dr. Powell began developing what is now the Universal Writing Continuum—a comprehensive set of tools, including a 42-point skill assessment continuum (as opposed to a four-point rubric), which allows teachers to view individual student data and class data and provides searchable teaching strategies for helping students as individuals or as a class.

“We used it with classroom teachers, and they all loved it,” Dr. Powell says. With the assistance of a then-graduate student in computer science, Uni-SPIRE was able to adapt its pen-and-paper assessment to an online tool and to correlate results to Common Core standards once they took effect.  Since Uni-SPIRE’s founding, the Writing Continuum has been piloted with more than 90 teachers in five states.

What’s unique about the Universal Writing Continuum is that it’s teachers and students, not computers, that assess a student’s writing. Dr. Powell gave an example of one computerized writing assessment that assigned a second-grade writing achievement level to Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”

“As amazing as technology is, it can’t do everything,” Dr. Powell says. Uni-SPIRE’s continuum, though, “is helping teachers learn about students so that they can inspire them more.”

Uni-SPIRE is well into the piloting of its second version of the continuum assessment, beginning with five or six school districts in the fall. Dr. Powell seeks school districts which care about and believe in developing writing abilities in their students.

But the company also cares about developing other abilities in students—specifically, marketable skills for college students. Uni-SPIRE has employed over 75 UNCW students from majors as varied as computer science, marketing, communication studies, education, and more. Uni-SPIRE has been the subject of multiple full class projects, small group projects, masters theses, independent studies, and internships.

“Any student who wants to come be a part, we’ll find something for them to do,” Dr. Powell says.  “It’s ‘jump in, here’s your role, take off and solve the problem.’ Everything we do gives students real experience that they need for whatever career they pursue.”

Even in retirement, Dr. Powell’s passion for helping her students shines.

“I love working with the university students,” she says. “They’re hardworking, they’re a challenge. Sometimes, students don’t know how much they do know. I have to keep saying, ‘you have to solve that problem—you may not know how to do it now, but you’ll figure it out!’ That experience is something we don’t always offer in our coursework.”

In the future, Dr. Powell says she’d like to get Uni-SPIRE to a place of success where it can be passed to someone else.

“I’ve put four years into building it into something someone else can take over,” she says, “because I really would like to retire again!”

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