Monthly Archives: February 2015

Making the Best Out of a Bad Situation

Shaking hands with a polar bear while holding a juicy burger doesn’t make any sense.

Here are some other things that don’t make sense:

– Giving students an end-of-year standardized writing test before the third quarter is even over

– Having students take this test writing from planning to published version in the allotted 55 minutes

– Allowing absolutely no collaboration of any type during this test

– Allowing absolutely no outside resources, such as a thesaurus, to help students improve their test-writing, despite the fact that using these tools is actually a state standard

If you can’t tell, it’s test season in my state, and I’m not a huge fan of assessing writing skill on a standardized test. However, rather than rehash all the silly things about a test of this nature, I’d like to try to find some positives.

Our state’s writing rubric and my previous experience with the testing genre have led me to identify some key qualities of student test-writing that the test authorities seem to value. Most of my highest-scoring student pieces have contained the following:

– a hook and a memorable ending

– similes and strong word choice

– dialogue

-sensory details

– correct paragraphing

– complex sentence structure

Not that bad of a list. In fact, if all student writing contained half of those things, we’d probably be happy. So, as we prepare during our test-writing genre unit, these are the elements of writing we reteach and review. We remember and reference lessons from earlier in the year, and those sought-after light bulbs pop on much more quickly in students’ heads than they did the first time around. It’s a chance to discuss simple additions to writing that make a big difference. We also review the Six Traits of Writing and where these additions fit. In this poor camera-work-by-me example, you can see a student trying to do a lot of these in just one paragraph:


As we review, a competition starts to develop between the students. They want to be the one who nails the perfect verb or adds a new simile that makes our jaws drop. Of course, I try to play up these reactions, pretending to almost faint when I see the word “accelerated” or hear,”It was as boring as staring at a leaf for two hours.” Injecting a bit of fun keeps students motivated.

Test writing is not fun, nor is it real. It’s an abnormal task that will never apply to students’ future writing life. However, reality is that we need students to do well, and we can hope that reviewing some elements of great writing will transfer to their future work. That makes more sense than trying to outrun the polar bear.



10 Great Nonfiction Books


It’s great to be able to participate in the #nf10for10 movement. I’ve enjoyed reading others’ posts, and I’m excited to add mine. These books are essential in my fourth grade classroom, whether as recommendations for students or as texts for lessons.


Bad News for Outlaws by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson – This is a fantastic nonfiction biography about someone you haven’t heard of. Consider using it in a lesson about headings or main idea.


Biggest, Strongest, Fastest by Steve Jenkins – Visualizing in nonfiction is so much different than in fiction. Use this book to teach how nonfiction authors help readers visualize through comparisons.


Smile by Raina Telgemeier – This book won the Young Hoosier Book Award, my state’s student-chosen literature award. It is never on the shelf.


14 Cows for America – by Carmen Agra Deedy – Amazing artwork accompanies an amazing story. It’s perfect for teaching making connections, especially if you pair it with another text about 9/11.


Elizabeth Leads the Way – by Tanya Lee Stone – My students are floored to learn that women have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. Use this book to teach almost any reading strategy, especially anything related to character.


Pigs, Pizza, and Poetry – by Jack Prelutsky – Half biography, half instructional book, all hilarious. I time this chapter book read-aloud right before we begin writing some poems of our own.


Worst of Friends – by Suzanne Tripp Jurmain – There is no book better for teaching comparing and contrast than this story of the feud between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I will use it for years.


Zombie Makers – by Rebecca Johnson – This book will turn your stomach. This also means it will turn the most distracted student into an attentive listener.


Dark Emperor – by Joyce Sidman – If you have a student who won’t venture outside nonfiction, this is the perfect book. It is a blend of poetry with nonfiction sidebars that those kids will love.


Indiana – by Bettina Ling – As a fourth grade teacher, I need to introduce state history to my students. I was able to get 30 copies of this book, and it is so much more engaging than reading the textbook.

I’m sure there are many books I am leaving off this list. Maybe 10 more in the future? We’ll see…

The Danger of Practicing Writing Tests

Practicing for writing tests is counterproductive. It leads to lower scores.

It’s standardized test time in my great state, and that means a writing prompt. Our state gives fourth graders a writing prompt and then asks them to plan, write, revise, and edit three-and-a-half pages in just fifty-five minutes without any input from other readers or an audience. Now, this type of assessment is, of course, silly and fake, but it’s our reality.

Because this is a strange genre of writing, there is a temptation to make students do sample writing prompts as practice. Teachers with the best of intentions set up the timer and have students do exactly what they will be required to do on the standardized test. The thinking is that if they do this enough times, they’ll be used to it, and then the writing test will be no big deal.

However, we want students to think this one test is a big deal. We want them to think it’s a huge deal. We want them to know that this is the one time this year where they are going to try to cram every piece of writing knowledge — all the word choices, all the similes, all the varied sentence structures — into one fifty-five minute test. If we make students do these types of writings all the time, they will become commonplace. If students do these tests all the time, they see the real deal and think, “Well…here’s another one…” Their interest in the task vanishes, their effort declines, and their scores suffer.

This problem is compounded by the opportunity cost of making students practice for standardized tests. If a school has students practice extended prompts once a month, by March the students will have missed eight chances at having a writing lesson that would have improved their writing skills. Maybe they missed two lessons on writing interesting beginning sentences, three about strong verbs, and two about using complex sentences to vary sentence lengths. The students who learns these lessons will be a stronger writer than the student that did eight sample prompts.

Now, there are some facets of test takings to which students must be exposed. They must know how to read and decode a prompt, identifying the format and audience of the writing. They must know how to plan using the space provided to gather ideas for writing. The must know simple things they can do to make their writing stand out among the crowd. However, none of these require students to push out three full pages of writing.

In my classroom, there is only one time where I expect students to take a prompt from start to a three-and-a-half page finish: test day. They know this is the only time they will be asked to do this, and they have to nail it. The effort I get every year is outstanding. They blow me away with what they write.

And, they are better writers, which is what really matters.

How to Hold a No-Stress Classroom Party

“Okay, guys. Your goal is to suck the stripe off the candy cane. Ready? Go!”

This was the scene early in my teaching career. I had turned over the classroom party to a “room mother” who, with the best of intentions, prepared a game that became chaos. While we were in the computer lab, she had pushed every desk to the perimeter of the classroom, hung 25 strings from the ceiling, and attached a candy cane to each. With their hands behind their backs, the students were instructed to suck the stripe off the candy cane. I’m not kidding.


This was the last party I allowed an outside force to plan. Instead, a began a system I still use today: the students plan their own party.

Half of the students plan the holiday party, and the other half plan the Valentine’s Day party. They gather with me in a “super-secret meeting” a few weeks before the party. We discuss their ideas for games and treats, deciding together what is doable and what is not. I have to guide them a bit during this process, suggesting that certain ideas (like relay races) might not be the best for inside the classroom and that, no, we cannot hold a party outside in the middle of February.

After this meeting is over, I’m done. That’s it. The students either make it happen or they don’t. What happens if they don’t do what they say they will? The hard answer is that the party will just end early, but the reality is this has never happened in ten years of using this idea. Some parties have been better than others, but the kids always come through. I’ve had groups choose to lead crafts, alter classroom games to fit the season, and I even had a group perform a play, complete with costumes and a script.

It helps that an entire half of the students are responsible for each party. We always assign two students for most jobs (bringing drinks, running the game, etc.) because if one doesn’t come through, then we have a backup. I also keep a video or bingo game ready…just in case. However, the students enjoy being given this responsibility and usually do an amazing job.

When the actual party takes place, the students lead everything. I spend most of the party either pouring drinks or keeping students seated. Sometimes I end up in a seat just watching. Parents who wish to come to the party are welcome, but they function as helpers, rather than taking over the show. The students listen better to each other during parties than they ever listened to a parent helper.

If classroom parties stress you out, give this a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised.