Celebrating: Students

This week and my students were wild and wet; up and down.  Today, the ground is wet, but skies are clear, and I am celebrating my students with you and those who celebrate with Ruth Ayers every week.  They got through some difficult spots, but came out, in my opinion, shining.

Winter Break is almost here and kids feel it. Schedules were disrupted due to practicing for the winter pageant and the rain. Even with that underlying craziness, students did as they were asked. They practiced their performance. They lined up by height, climbed up on risers, squeezed close together and sang.  Fifth graders don’t like to stand close to one another, smile and sing. But they did it. Their voices rising in unison. Their faces shining. I hate the practice, but the results always  get to me and I smile deep inside.

This brings me to the assessment  I gave my students this week. I hate giving tests. Hate taking tests.  But I have to admit, the results can be fascinating. I told my students, as I handed them the (gasp) practice language arts performance assessment from Smarter Balanced,  this is to help me help you.

The content wasn’t bad, three articles about service animals. They were interesting and not too long. I knew some would struggle, some aren’t there yet, but it seemed appropriate for fifth graders in May. I figured it wouldn’t kill them, so let’s see what they can do.

They were to read the articles, answer a few opened ended questions, and then write an opinion piece using the information.

Watching them take this was painful and pleasing. Sort of like watching them line up and sing. They suffered a bit as they hunkered down to read a text that was not their choice. But they took out their notebooks and jotted their noticings and thoughts. They wrote in the margins of the text. They took their time. They worked hard. I was proud of them, and worried for them.

They read, re read, and finally got to the questions. Did they have enough left to answer the questions at the end of all that?

The following day they wrote their opinions.

After it all was over, I asked them what they thought about the work. They said it was exhausting, it was challenging, and it wasn’t what they wanted to do.

I asked them was it good to know what they would be facing in May? They all said yes, loud and clear.


Students have to take this test, for better or for worse.  In all fairness to them, they need and want to know what they need to face.

I spent last night looking at their work. What I saw were big ideas from the text jotted in the margins as well as their thoughts, questions, and reactions.

2014-12-13 10.40.192014-12-13 10.35.25

That right there said they understood the text, they interacted with the text, they had comprehension and thinking that went with the text.

Their answers weren’t perfect, but the majority were getting there. From what I could see, the errors were largely due to the fact that they didn’t read the questions as thoughtfully as they read the text. In most cases it had nothing to do with their actual comprehension.

In writing, about two-thirds had written opinions and the others had written informational pieces. Were they perfect, no. Were they thoughtful, yes. The majority showed their thinking about the topic and incorporated some of their learning from reading the articles.

My students have not mastered the expectations of the common core as measured by this assessment. What they showed was that the work that we (as a school) have been doing is getting them there. And more importantly they are readers, thinkers and writers. .

Today I celebrate my fifth graders and all the teaching and learning that has happened in their elementary school careers. I celebrate the years of excellent, authentic teaching in classrooms filled with read aloud, guided and strategic reading and writing instruction, with real books and magazines, and the opportunity to read and write daily.  I celebrate the opportunity I have to continue to teach and learn with my students in the months to come.

celebrate link up


Slice of Testing Life

Every Tuesday, Two Writing Teachers blog hosts a place to post a slice of life . Join in as a contributor or just read more slices  here. Thank you  TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth for providing this space for our writing.

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hToday was one of those days. I had so much I wanted to do, planned to do. But, the expected unexpected happened.

I got to class early.

Got vocabulary ready.

The iPads were charged for students to take pictures of their favorite spots on the playground (thank you Tara for this inspiration).

I started to work out the sequence of the day on the board, when an administrator walked in. Now I love this administrator. She is the sweetest person, but she is the bearer of testing news. I saw her and I knew. I gave her a dirty look. I’m sure my tone was surly. That was extremely wrong of me, and I think I apologized. I just couldn’t help it. When I saw her, I knew the day I had planned was doomed..

You might be thinking right now, Why was this a surprise?

Let me explain my seemingly out of touch behavior. We have 70 iPads to conduct testing among approximately 360 students. Because of this. we take turns and we sort of guess  at the timing based on where you are in line and how much time you think the classes before you might take. Crazy? Yes. So when I was planning the week, I decided to simply not worry because I couldn’t control it.

When this administrator walked in I knew my fate was sealed and there was no getting around it. The test was today, and my dismay showed on my face. My students were destined to a day behind the iPads, reading Smarter Balanced passages, and writing their performance assessment.

My students were tougher than me. They walked in and they did it. They worked hard. Took notes, planned, read and wrote. They made out loud comments, asked questions (that I couldn’t answer), and continued to work hard.

Student: This is hard.

Me: I think, I’m sorry, I know it is. I say, But you are working harder, you’re showing what it takes.

Student: I don’t understand this question.

Me: I think, I can’t help. I say, do your best.

Student:  I am writing an amazing essay.

Me: I say, Wow! I think, what an attitude.

By the end of the day they (we) were spent.

After school, kids said they nailed the writing.

I’ll never know how they did because we won’t see the results. It’s a dry run for all involved. Next year counts.

While it’s nice not to worry about scores, I’d like to see what they wrote.  I’m curious. The fact is I’ll never be able to see what they write on these standardized tests, even when it counts. All I’ll see is a number. Which makes me sad. I just would like to see what they have to say.

As I watched students tap their screens, enlarge the font, and type madly away, I thought: If it were me, I’d like the reading on paper; something I could mark up and easily flip back and forth. If I was doing this test, I’d like to respond on the computer, but to read, write notes on, and refer back to text on paper.

Reading and writing on the same screen seemed difficult. I wonder if the designers of  the Common Core intended this additional challenge.  I wonder if those who make testing decisions ever  really consider what students have to do. If they put themselves in the students’ seats and took this test on those devices, would they achieve proficiency?


Slice of Life Day 25: Testing…Hmm Imagine If…


During the month of March I am blogging daily with others in the Slice of Life Daily Challenge. Thank you  TaraAnnaDana, Stacey,   Betsy  and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for providing and supporting this place to learn and grow. You can read more slices here.


California has given schools this year to gear up for the Core, so our actual, it-counts-test, starts next year. This year we take a practice test. The pressure was lifted. Teachers got to teach all year to the standards without thinking of test prep.

Last week our school received a set of tablets and a portable wifi system. Our students, class by class will take turns taking a part of the test.

Monday I pulled out our iPads and partnered up like readers. I was admittedly resentful of the time taken away from other pursuits but they had to know what they would be facing.  They sat down side by side and started the ELA practice test. With iPads for half the classroom, we do a lot of partner work, so they were used to sitting working together on one iPad and thinking. My goal was to get them used to navigating the tools and the structure of the test.

Up until today, I have not done one test passage, nor spent one minute on strategies for testing. I have spent all of our time together growing ways to access their critical thinking skills in reading and writing. They are all not at grade level no matter how you assess them — some are above, some are below.  They are all growing as readers and writers, but at their own rate. With all this in mind, I was worried about their reaction to this test. Would they freak out, be overwhelmed, give up? Would they be able to negotiate the technology?

Today I saw my students sit side by side completely engaged in the task. They wanted to know what they would be facing. They read side by side, taking notes. When they got to the questions, they debated their choices. I heard things like, “no this has to prove that, see it says… look at this part…” and “no it says right here paragraph-s, that means more than one” and “I think we should flag this one and come back to it because I’m not sure” and “look the timer says we’re on track.” (I didn’t even know there was a timer!)

What made me happy (if you can imagine happy  and test prep going together) was that they were not overwhelmed. The troubles and the strengths I see in these students every day were there, but they were doing their best. They did not give up.

They were calm, focused, and using strategies as naturally as breathing.  One student said, “wouldn’t it be great if we could do this with partners in the real test?”

I thought that isn’t such a bad idea. What my students were doing was reading, discussing possible answers, analyzing their thinking, coming to agreement, justifying their responses. Like readers were working together so no one dominated the answers. They were working it out, thinking it through. They were doing Common Core work. All weren’t at the same level in their thinking that was clear, so if students were to work together like this … I know this is crazy talk but what if…

I am proud of them. They are hard working, can do students. If we could take this “low-stakes” approach to the “real” test it wouldn’t be so bad. Call me crazy.

Slice of Life Day 14: Testing Stress Dreams


I am “slicing” with the Slice of Life Challenge for the month of March.  Check out more slices here. Thank you TaraAnnaDanaStacey,  Betsy  and Beth at Two Writing Teachers for the tremendous work you do.

I had my first testing stress dream last night.

It was all about topic sentences. Oh my god do they have to know that?

While I have been teaching students to write with topic sentences in mind, I haven’t used those words in instruction, largely because I had much bigger things on my mind than:  “Identify the topic sentence.” My dream seriously freaked me out.

First thing I did when I got up was reach for my standards, I mean my phone.

I have this very cool app, Core by MasteryConnect.

images-1You can search the standards by grade level and strand, which I did. Reading standard by standard, I found nothing about topic sentences. But I was still concerned. What if I missed something? That’s when I noticed the search bar. I typed in “topic sentence.” No results.

Just to double check that I was doing what I thought I was doing, I searched for something I knew had to be there, “Central Idea.” And boy was it ever. Central Idea is everywhere. But you knew that right? Well I did, sort of.

The results for central idea were instructive. It made the spiraling of the standards so clear by showing exactly where the standard starts and how it grows through the content and grade levels, and all with a tap on the search button. What a cool app, and it’s free!

If you knew this already, you are a Common Core Techie All Star. If you are like me, and just used it for the single standards, you have got to trying searching by key words. I’m telling you it is so fun! (Yes, I am a nerd.)

Fascinated, I searched for other key terms. “Summarize” is throughout the reading standards, and shows up in 5th grade writing attached to paraphrasing and then in 6th grade math and again in High School math.

I had to look up “paraphrase” next. It comes up for the first time as a speaking and listening standard in 4th grade, that makes sense. Paraphrasing starts as a writing standard in 5th grade for researching and note taking and continues through 8th grade. Again it makes sense.  “Quote” the cousin to paraphrase comes up for the first time in 5th and then continues through 8th grade.

Just for kicks, I’m planning to look for more key words in my grade level standards, to see where they start and where they go. It is so much easier than flipping through a book or cutting up those tiny standards and glueing them on paper to see how it all connects.

Other techie options are available. You can sign up on Core’s site to find teachers by subject matter, grade level and school district. Yes, another platform connect on. You can even add the chrome app to your browser. Frankly, as long as my phone has a charge I’m good with the phone app for now.

Here’s to the upside of stress dreams.

Studying Primary Documents in the Elementary School Classroom

Last week my class and I had a special treat.  Dayna Wells (@daywells), visited my classroom with at social studies lesson — how to read like a historian using primary documents on the battle of Lexington.

Her lesson was developed in collaboration with the Stanford History Education Group‘s reading like a historian program. This curriculum was designed for high schoolers, but Dayna thought she could bring it to the elementary level. Reading primary documents presents many barriers for young students, I couldn’t wait to see what she had in mind.

She shared some pictures of the battle of Lexington. One done by a craftsmen of the time, the other done nearly 100 years after the battle. Then she shared two accounts of the battle: one from a British officer’s journal and one that was a sworn statement of 34 minutemen.  Students were to study the documents and then determine which document they felt was the most “trustworthy.”

1. Consider the source.
 One of the big objectives of the lesson was to teach students to look at the source first.  This is huge. Reading top to bottom, the last thing a student encounters is the source. Dayna taught students to read like a historian by looking at the source first.  Brilliant, and a huge aha for me. The source helps us determine a point of view and allows us to be critical readers. Knowing the author colors our thinking and provides a hint as to its potential bias.  

2. Read modified documents that approximate students’ reading level. One of the big hurdles for elementary students when studying primary document is the language of the time. Dayna accommodated the students by modifying the language, making the task more appropriate. For example, one document was sourced “a sworn statement in front of the Justice of the Peace.” Knowing our students wouldn’t know what a Justice of the Peace did at the time she changed it to “a court.” 

3. Ferret out the facts by comparing the documents. After studying and discussing the documents, students were asked to consider the facts. Distinguishing fact from opinion is hard for 5th graders. What they found == what the documents had in common, the date, the place, the time and who was there, should be considered facts. Other details in the documents conflicted, hence they must be opinion.

4. Determine which document is most “trustworthy.” This took some discussion and judgement on their part. The key issue was who fired the first shot.  After examining the documents and the paintings students determined the most trustworthy source was the sworn statement of 34 minutemen.

5. What we learned. The following day students explained in a quick write what they learned and what document they felt was most trustworthy.

I always use the source first and that I should always make notes whenever I read anything.

I learned about how to use sources, how to see pictures in a way of an artist and that is how you can be an historian.

Read the source before the text to find out who wrote it and the date.

The Lexington battle was at 5 o’clock in the morning. British say the minutemen fired the first shot. The minutemen say the British shot first. I believe that Document B was more trustworthy because it was sworn by 34 minutemen in front of court judges . . . it also says that the minutemen ran away and that was also in a picture.

I was bowled over by the power of this work. It provided great engagement in a content area, inquiry-based lesson. It taught a transferable skill for any document. But the most powerful part of this work was teaching students to be critical readers and thinkers. Students had to read closely. Determine facts, opinions. Compare multiple documents and points of view and then determine the value of the documents in terms of trustworthiness.  This type of thinking leads students to not only meet Common Core objectives, but creates critical thinkers and responsible citizens. 

History rocks! So do you Dayna.  Thank you for making my classroom a test kitchen.

SOL Reflection: Making the Writing Box Bigger


Slice of Life hosted by Two Writing Teachers makes Tuesdays wonderful. If you’d like to join in the slicing, check out this link.

The very nature of goal setting is to challenge ourselves, to reach for more, to measure our progress, to prove or affirm our place, to keep up, to be acknowledged or some combination of all of the above.  Certain people are goal-oriented; they are driven by the need to succeed. Certain types of activities are based on achieving goals: think sales or sports.

This is all fine and dandy, but it makes me wonder about those times when we don’t succeed and label it failure. It seems so final.

Nerdlution, part 1 had many people saying they had failed.  This tweet from Franki Sibberson made me think:  “I wonder what our #nerdlutions failures mean in terms of our expectations of students and their goals?”  Hmmm… I wonder too.

There are some students in my class that succeed in traditional school ways. But there are some that don’t. For various reasons they don’t fit into the box we call school. They are bright kids and can succeed, but not in the school way. In organization, writing, reading, math — certain students hit walls. Success based on standard measures doesn’t happen for them, yet. They know it and feel bad about it. They feel bad about themselves because they fail to succeed. It isn’t a life sentence, just school. So how can we make the box that means success a little bigger?

Last week we drafted our memoirs.

Forty minutes had passed. One student hunkers over his paper. I walk over. He has written four lines. His piece is all about how he hates writing.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

“This is so hard.” His writing tells me more. Writing was easy in first grade, but now it is so hard because there is so much more to pay attention to. Really something worth pursuing with him, but not now. Poor kid’s in a panic.

While he has only written a few lines, what he has done is beautiful. Ironic, I think. This child who hates to write has a gift for it. He knows how to put words together. But at the same time, he feels he has failed. In mis mind he hasn’t written enough.

He says, “I can’t do this, I don’t know what else to say.”

I tell him I know the feeling. I tell him his style reminds me of so many memoir texts that start out, “When I was…” and then continue with a string of “when I was…” moving toward the present.

I ask him if he remembers writing in second grade, or third or fourth? How was it then?

His eyes perk up, “I remember second grade. It was ok then. Things got much more difficult in fourth grade.”

“Ok,” I say, “Start in second grade, then work your way forward, grade by grade. See if that can get you a little more and perhaps you could figure out something along the way.”

He sits back down, leans over his work, and writes. Ten minutes pass. Four more lines written. He seems better with this product, and better with himself.

As we walk to recess, I tell him that he has grit.

“What’s that?”

“That’s when you keep working, even when it’s hard. Extremely hard.  When you do this you have grit. You don’t give up.”

“Oh, sort of like perseverance?”

“But doesn’t it sound cooler – grit?”

“Yeah, kind of like getting messy in the dirt,” he says.

“Exactly,” I say. “You have a way with words.”

And then he runs off to recess.

While I want him to love to write, this year might just be about making writing a little less painful. The real question in in my mind is how he feels about himself and his abilities.

He is being asked to do a school thing defined by a unit of study.  There are other opportunities to write. But this is how he defines writing. Let’s face it, this is how we have defined it. After all, it’s called Writer’s Workshop. The process of writing overwhelms him. There is just too much to remember, to organize and then a deadline on top of it makes it even more disturbing. Bottom line, this type of work makes him feel like a failure.

He doesn’t fit into this particular writing box, and because of this he hates writing. Regardless of what the Common Core says, for the sake of our students, writing needs to be seen as something we do everywhere. Our definition of writing and what we present as writing opportunities needs to expand dramatically.  The box needs to get bigger, making room for students to find a writing space that fits and equals success.