Slice of Life: A Bad English Assignment Gone Nerdy

It’s Tuesday! Time for Slice of Life hosted by Two Writing Teachers Blog. Thank you Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara, for this space 11454297503_e27946e4ff_hto share our thoughts and our lives. Join in, share your slice of life and read more slices here.

Our family is busy and seldom together at mealtime. We understand and fend for ourselves, foraging for left overs.  The weekdays slip by.

Last Sunday night we planned a family dinner.

For many reasons, we ended up at a local Italian restaurant/sports bar. It’s one of those places where no matter where you sit you see three televisions. I don’t care or know much about football, but I was instantly memorized along with everyone else; cheering, wincing and commenting on the games. I guess that could be an acceptable family dinner if we were viewing the same game, even the same commercial. But we can’t; we all see different screens.

At some point someone, perhaps the waitress, breaks the spell and my daughter starts a conversation.

I hate it when a teacher asks for our opinion and then grades it as if there was a right answer.

Apparently, her high school English teacher asked students to write the connotation, good or bad, of certain words. The example she gave was skinny and thin and goes on to say:

He may think skinny has a bad connotation, but I’d love to be called skinny. How can he consider my connotation, my opinion wrong. How can he grade that!

She has an excellent point. First, there is a serious cultural literacy gap between a forty-something male and a sixteen-year old female with regards to the word skinny. And secondly, the idea of simply grading this kind of thinking as correct or incorrect struck me as lacking in imagination and in the belief of students’ ability to consider and debate ideas.

My son, English major cum laude, takes this complaint as an invitation to launch into a discussion about the origins of English words. “You know,” he says, “the source of the word often dictates the connotation of the word.” He goes on to talk about how there are so many words for the same thing in English because of the many languages that have contributed to English.

With this, we all jump at the challenge of naming synonyms, considering their connotations and origin: cathedral/church, swine/pig, affordable/cheap, intelligent/smart, lady/woman, feline/cat, child/kid. The televisions have lost their power.

Food is served and we talk, reconnect. Every now and then, another synonym pair pops up.

We leave the restaurant, still trying to think of words with the same meaning, discussing connotations and origin.

Who would think a badly constructed English assignment could have such a silver nerdy lining.


Celebrate: The Power of Assessments, Part 2

Time to Celebrate this Week with Ruth Ayers.

celebrate link up

It has been a long, short week. So much was packed into four days.


This week was filled with reading and writing assessments. Assessments keep me up at night for many reasons. I wrote about the pain of inappropriate assessments on Tuesday.  But on the flip side, results of assessments, when viewed with understanding and as a marker of growth on a continuum of learning, are reason to celebrate. 

This week I saw my students’ thinking as they wrote about their reading. I saw how each student approached the text. I saw growth and meeting of benchmarks. This matters. Students need to see their growth. But more importantly, teachers need to find next steps for students. So I record their scores to track their progress, and set that aside. What I spend time with and celebrate this weekend are the areas of need, the next step for each child and the puzzle of how to get there.


Our informational writing unit came to an end and students celebrated by commenting on each other’s posts.  Students tend to notice the mistake rather than the strength or comment so generally it means very little.  I wanted them to not only comment in a positive way, but to learn something in the process. Taking a tip from Melanie Meehan, I cut up our TCRWP checklists and put them on cards .

2015-01-16 17.34.54Then, I invited students to find something a student did well that was on a card and complement them, by identifying what they did as a writer. After working on these for a while I found myself calling them “complement cards.” I started to ask students, have you written a complement or a connection to a post. Inadvertently I had renamed our work. This week I celebrate the renaming of comments. We no longer comment on posts, we complement or make connections.


At the end of any writing unit I ask students to write an on demand piece.  I invited them to write about any topic they felt they are an expert in. Their only constraint was the time, 45 minutes. Without prompting, many pulled out their genius hour notebooks, filled with notes on their passion projects. One student asked, can we put this on the blog? Never have I had a student ask to put an assessment on the blog. This week I celebrate the power of genius hour learning: time students choose what they want to learn. Given opportunity, resources and choice students can create their own learning.

And finally...

All this week my students wrote about their one little words. So much has come out in this process. Their posts are raw, exposed. The choices they make are so telling.

The reason why I choose powerful is because if I do something hard I could look at my word, then it will tell me that I am brave and that nothing is going to take me down. It will also tell me that I am brave and I won’t back down and if I struggle a lot I can look at the muscle and that means I am strong and I am very powerful. So that’s why I picked it because sometimes I struggle a lot, so that’s why I picked the word, so it will make me brave and my word. I know some people struggle with stuff and adults also struggle a lot, so I picked it because I knew it would help me and make me better when I am working. And if I get stuck I can look at it and it tells me I am strong I can beat any hard stuff and it will make me confident.  Now I like the word and I love the word😊 because I know it will help me throughout the year of elementary so yay👍.

So yay and happy weekend!



Slice of Life: The Power of Assessments

Assessments are powerful tools. Consider medical tests. Used appropriately they can be lifesaving. Used inappropriately, they can be misleading and lead to painful misdiagnosis. The same is true for reading assessments.

My students have been been schooled to be careful, questioning readers. Speed has been discouraged. Their reading assessments to date have rewarded thoughtful responses, both spoken and written. They are used to conferring with a teacher to express their thinking. This is what they believe is expected of them as readers. This is what they think reading is.

My district has recently required a new reading assessment. I had never done this type of assessment before and the majority of my students had no recollection of taking this kind of a test.

The assessment measures reading fluency over three passages with a quick retell at the end. The emphasis is on speed: the number of words read and spoken in the retell.

Results aren’t complete, but what I have noticed is how quickly students adjust to expectations. In the first passage they would read at their typical, careful pace. When stopped at the minute mark they were startled and felt they needed to complete the piece to be able to understand it. Retelling the story was difficult and frustrating for them. After all they hadn’t finished the text.

By the third read, students’ speed increased markedly. Their years of learning how readers should read was abandoned for what was expected, speed. With that speed they got further in the text, but their comprehension was at best on the surface. They could recount details, but synthesis of ideas was limited.

In just six minutes (the time allowed to read and retell three passages) their behavior as readers changed. Whoa! Do they learn fast.

As much as I told them not to worry, you could see the concern in their faces. They could see their scores come up on the iPad screen.

“What does green mean? Is that good?”

They probably felt like the patient in the doctor’s office with all the blinking lights and numbers. Thinking, am gonna be ok?

I try to reassure them. I tell them reading is not about speed. Reading is thinking and thinking takes time. Don’t worry about this, I say.  Go back to your book, hoping they forget the entire experience.

When I found out I had to do this assessment I was irritated because of the time taken away from instruction. After testing them, I am more disturbed by their reactions to the assessment.

When we test students we send a message. We are telling them this is what matters. You’d better be good at this.

Fortunately, my students went back to their books, and I will go back to teaching them that reading is thinking and that takes time. I also walk on with the knowledge that the assessments we give students send powerful expectations and should be given with care..

Thank you to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara at Two Writing Teachers blog for Tuesday Slice of Life. Share your own and r11454297503_e27946e4ff_head more slices here.

IMWAYR: Death by Toilet Paper and Secret Hum

Last night standing in the doorway that leads to my bedroom, I was caught crying. Ben Epstein, the ever upbeat 12-year old protagonist of Death by Toilet Paper, was at a really low spot.  This lovely mixture of sad, hopeful, and funny book had just hit a heart-wrenching part.


Benjamin enters contests for fun, but after his dad’s death winning has become a necessity. To help his mom make ends meet, Ben is always on the lookout for ways to make money. Selling candy bars at school and crafting contest-winning advertising jingles are his specialties. Things are complicated further by school rules, bullies and when his memory-challenged zedye moves in.

The big contest win he’s hoping for is the Royal-T Toilet Paper Company’s grand prize of $10,000 for a new company slogan.

In keeping with the theme, every chapter starts with an interesting fact about toilet paper or toilets. I learned quite a bit.

Seven percent of Americans steal toilet paper from hotel and motel rooms.

The most expensive toilet is found at the international space station. NASA paid $19 million for a Russian-built system.

The average toilet lasts 50 years.

I love it when I find a winning read for both boys and girls. This book, with its mixture of drama, humor, and fun toilet facts, will entertain and sneakily inform my 5th graders.

Next up, The Secret Hum of a Daisy.


Raves from the twittersphere has pushed this to the top of my TBR pile.


Celebrating: Words, Words, Words

Time to Celebrate This Week with Ruth Ayres! Read more celebration post here.

celebrate link up

This week students read and read and read, and did not want to stop. Monday, they did Book/Talk Swaps. Each student prepared a quick book talk on a book they read over the break. They shared, and after about 10 minutes students were settled with new books.

Friday afternoon walking in from recess, students kept asking me, “Are we gonna get to read more?” I wondered, why so many requests. Apparently, when we had gone to recess many were almost at the end of those books they got on Monday. I hadn’t realized. We read for 10 more minutes, and then, they pleaded for more, “Please just five more minutes.” Can it get any better than that? Today I celebrate book love!

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This week we worked on our One Little Words  I blogged about our discoveries here.

Tuesday, we studied quotations at Brainy Quotes. By clicking on the person who is quoted, students could find other words that person said. Not surprisingly, Walt Disney had a lot to say about dreaming and creating. Quotes from Abraham Lincoln, several Roosevelts (“are they related?”), Orson Wells, William Shakespeare, Rumi,  Queen Latifa, Helen Keller, Virgil, Angelina Jolie, Margaret Mead and others were written down. To see Angelina Jolie on the same page is Virgil was a kick.


Wednesday, we used that provided an initial look at synonyms for their OLWs. Then we moved to the visual thesaurus, which quite honestly blew them away. Synonyms literally exploded like flowers, spanning out from their chosen OLW in the center. Powerful. We used the online version on our devices which is available on a trail basis, later for a charge. There are other free visual thesauruses available online and an iPad app for 99 cents. This visualization of words makes a difference, particularly with multiple meaning words. In a visual rendition the synonyms branch out on different paths differentiating the meanings. Just check out the many meanings of “dream.”  Each branch shows how this works. So much more understandable!2015-01-17 11.06.57

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Thursday, students learned how to use the Word Clouds app. This free iPad app is a great tool for our computing environment. It is simple, free, and their final results can be captured easily on the iPad camera. Students loved the colors, fonts and arranging possibilities. We tested it with their writing on Westward Expansion. The big ideas in any text just pop, and the learning goes well beyond the oohs an ahas of colors and words.

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This week I celebrate electronic media tools. I am thankful for our books and love of books, but websites, apps and computing tools bring words and ideas to life easily and quickly. Check out, visual thesauruses (, and thesaurus visual dictionary app), and the Word Clouds app with your students.

This week just flew by.  Everyday, someone would be surprised by the bell ringing saying things like, “We’re done? That was fast!”  Two students thought Friday was Thursday.  After school, I overheard a few students talking about how fast the school year is going. “Yeah,” one replied, “I’m gonna miss this place.”  That same child started the school year saying she couldn’t wait for middle school. Today, I celebrate the fact that it feels like time is flying, yet students long for just a bit more.

Happy Weekend!

Slice of Life: The Power of OLWs in the Classroom

I could feel it the minute I picked them up off the yard. They were alert, relaxed and ready. With their energy and thanks to Margaret Simon and Tara Smith’s great lessons, I felt more confident starting off Monday with a new idea: helping 5th graders choose a one little word.

First, invited them to consider this question from Janet Ilko’s slide share:

If you could replace your name with one word that would be the best you you could be this year, what would you choose?

I shared a short list of possible words to get their minds going.

They sat and studied. Quietly, they circled words jotted ideas, and moved thoughtfully towards their OLW — adventurefocus, change, soar, artist, aim, determined, challenge, believe to name a few.

Then students looked up their chosen word on

Oh so many meanings.

“Do we have to use them all?”

“Mine has 27 meanings!”

“Wow! 27!” 

I approached “P” who chose change. I was pretty sure she wanted the definition that meant to transform. But she was shaking her head.

“The one I want isn’t here.”

I looked and asked her to consider number 3. In addition to the definition was the word used in context:

The witch changed the prince into a frog.

“No that’s not what I mean. The meaning I want isn’t here. I want the meaning that means I’m gonna get better at something, you know change for the better.” 

A big aha for her and me.  The example showed a bad thing as a result of change. That was not what she wanted. Sometimes what we think will clarify will confuse

Another student was searching for believe. He was on the thesaurus page. I asked, what are you looking for? Perhaps a synonym I thought.

“I’m looking for the syllables.”

Another aha for him and me. He learned how a word is syllabicated in the definition and I learned what he wanted to know, not what I thought.

After 20 minutes of discovery, most students had decided on their OLW, found the definition, and written some thoughts.

“A” sitting quietly by himself had written two words: adventure and focus. I saw this and laughed inside.  Was he lost in an adventure, but knew he needed to focus? I’ll have to ask him today.

We finished up our first stab at OLWs, and started read aloud, the beautiful and sad beginning of The One and Only Ivan. After a few pages, I stopped and asked students to pick one little word that describes Ivan right now. Lonely, patient, strong, misunderstood and other words started to shape Ivan. Some words were from the text, others were a synthesis of what they felt described him.  Perhaps we will collect Ivan’s one little words as we progress through the story, showing his growth and our growing understanding of Ivan.

Can’t wait to find out where our adventures will take us as we focus on quotes and pictures for our OLWs. I hope “A” finds his.

Thank you Two Writing Teachers Blog, to Anna, Beth, Betsy, Dana, Stacey and Tara, for this space 11454297503_e27946e4ff_hto share the small moments that construct and constrain our lives. Read more slices here.


Celebrate: Caring and Kind Acts

Time to Celebrate with Ruth Ayers! Every week I am so thankful for this weekly practice of writing and reading celebrations.  To reflect and find the good, even in difficult situations is rejuvenating.  Read other celebrations here.

celebrate link up

Today, I’m celebrating what could have happened, but didn’t. I’m celebrating how a random act was just a big bump in the road, not a disaster.

Thursday night my son was running. He was crossing the street, in the crosswalk. Watching for cars, he looked left, then right.  He didn’t see one car, and the driver didn’t see him. It was an accident, pure and simple. No wrong doing. He’s going to be fine. He’s sore and bruised, but no broken bones, no concussion, no internal injuries. He’s lucky.

This week, I’m celebrating the skilled, caring and kind people who helped us through a scary night.

1. The driver. He was driving slowly. He stopped, and got help. He must have felt awful. I don’t know who he was, but I hope he finds out my son is going to be fine.

2. The bystanders. They saw, they heard, they came and helped.. One was an RN. One called 911. Several made sure other drivers avoided the accident. One helped me get to my son.

3. The firemen and paramedics from engine company 101. These professionals are masterful in emergency care, and are extremely kind. They not only cared for my son, they cared for me. Four paramedics tended my son in the ambulance. One made sure that I had my son’s glasses, that I knew where the hospital was, that I didn’t worry if the sirens went on, that I was safe getting to the hospital.

4. The police officers of the Harbor Division. They were at the scene, and followed up at the hospital, making sure it was just an accident. That’s important. We can be so quick to judge, to blame when bad things happen.  But this was simply an accident. Both parties just didn’t see the other one coming.

5. The trauma unit at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. We are so fortunate to have a trauma center close to home. The staff is amazing. They know their stuff. Dr. Darcy checked him out as soon as he arrived. No waiting. His nurses, Kevin and Vinnie, kept a close watch on him. X-rays were taken and read quickly. We knew what was happening as soon as they did. The staff was there for him at all times, supremely skilled and very kind.

This weekend,my son is resting and thankful. He knows he’s lucky.

This weekend, I am celebrating the people who care for others with skill and kindness.

#Nerdlution15: Twist

Day 10 of #nerdlution15.

My challenge: to  write about a word (of my choosing) a day for 50 days.

My rules:  here.

My noticing:  how  words connect. Hmm. That’s for later…

Today’s word: twisttwist

When I look up TWIST means to turn, to bend. But when I think of the word, it connects to fate, an unexpected end. A bit of intrigue or danger.  I think of food. Twisted pretzels. Twisted means a salty, sugary thing that is the just right combination of what I like to consume in mass in front of a favorite movie. Better than popcorn. Then the twisted dangerous side comes back, daring me to just try, and see if I like the outcome, am I that brave?


Writing About Reading: Bringing Engagement and Color to Student Thinking

I love my notebook. I use it to jot reading reactions, quotes, writing thoughts, words that interest me. I carry it with me.

Like me, my students’ reading notebooks house thinking and work. But there are some differences. First, their work is a little lifeless, a little predicable, sort of cookie cutter like. The second bigger difference is that they don’t love their notebooks. They don’t feel lost without them. Some, those who like to hold pens and write on paper, like the process. Some do it dutifully; they have been trained well.  Some make messes, drill holes, doodle, skip pages. For most, the notebook is a workbook, school work.

I love my notebook and it’s taken time to find that love.  I’ve experimented with different ways to jot, different notebooks and pens. Another big reason I love my notebook is because it’s private. So what does this mean for my students? How do I get my students to love or a least like using notebooks. Do I stop looking at student notebooks? Loosen my “criteria.” And if so, what does that look like? How do I assess? What about accountability?

Fortunately, I’m not alone. The upper grade teachers at my school have these same thoughts, and we have the opportunity to build our thinking together with our staff developer Katie Clements from TCRWP.

Katie guided us through student reader’s notebooks using specific lenses: 1) quantity, 2) growth in thinking, 3) content – retell or ideas, 4) student initiated or teacher agenda

What we found: Strategies we taught  were there!  We saw growth across grade levels. What we didn’t see: Diversity in thinking, deep thinking, or personal approaches to writing about reading, bold thinking.

The good news: students are doing what we have taught them.  Nothing wrong with that. In fact it is cause for a little celebration.  What we need: more diverse, student driven thinking; for students to find value in their writing about reading, a reason for it. Something other than “because the teacher asked me to.”

With this in mind, Katie shared some ideas to move our students toward bigger, bolder, more engaged thinking about reading. And hopefully more individuality and more passion connected to writing about reading.

  • Bring color and drawing to writing about reading. Model it in read aloud and then let students have markers to bring their thinking to life. (I love using color in my notebook. Color says something and gives me energy. Why not give students this opportunity.)
  • Study notebooks and develop a menu of writing about reading options together. (Consider doing this as a staff with our own notebooks?? Or if that’s too scary, our students’ notebooks.)
  • Create an audience for writing with gallery walks, allowing students to study each other’s best and “steal” ideas (Audience always matters!! Note to self: need to really teach “how to study and steal.”)
  • Allow students to find one page they want to “publish” with some revision (Big aha here!! I do this when I prepare a mentor text for writing about reading, why should students be allowed to?!)
  • Create a wall of writing about reading. Celebrate it! (Blog it ? – Offer the option to students.)
  • Teach students to give feedback in ways that build thinking and reflection on their writing about reading (Student assessment drives students teaching students)

We started some of this work before the long Winter Break. Students loved the challenge and the opportunity to bring life to their work.  After read aloud and a debate on the one of the characters, students went to their own reading. Toward the end of workshop, I invited them to write about reading. The results were diverse, deeper and assessable.

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Response from read aloud – similar to my model but independent thinking
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Debate done on read aloud – interesting choice of color and positioning of thoughts


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Independent reading: Rules. Seems to have transferred the demonstration in read aloud to independent work


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Independent reading: Lost in the Sun

We are just starting this work and I’ve already see renewed energy, a celebratory feel, and bigger thinking that is assessable. Next week students will return and our writing about reading adventures will continue. Can’t wait to see where we will go!