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.



About mrwhitehb

I teach 4th grade and am the chair of the Young Hoosier Book Award Committee for grades 4-6.

Posted on February 27, 2015, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well said.

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