elementary nonfiction writing

Please, Not One More Assessment

As the final weeks of school approach, teachers and students alike may feel overwhelmed with assessments. From naming letters to writing essays on state assessments, children are being asked to demonstrate what they have mastered throughout the school year.  The number of assessments continues to rise. As a result, during this busy time of year, too often assessments are given, graded and then filed away, with no thought to either their purpose or the information they provide.

Before asking students to complete an end-of-year writing assessment, pause and consider the task’s purpose.  Assessment is defined as a gathering of information about student learning. While formative assessments are given frequently and used to adjust instruction, a summative assessment is given to judge the quality of student work. This quality judgement can and should be helpful for both student and teacher.

As writing is a process, students’ progress should be assessed on the process.  Most importantly, students should be able to assess themselves on each part of the process and recognize their progress. Before giving students a final written assessment, consider these factors:

1)       What do you want students to be able to do?

Clearly define the skills you want students to exhibit:

-          Are you wanting students to write in complete sentences?

-          Are you assessing students’ ability to gather ideas and create a plan?

-          Are students expected to read a text and gather appropriate information?

 

2)      How will your students know they have met their learning goal?

Provide students clear expectations and targets.  This can be done through:

-          Complete prompts

-          Specific rubrics

-          Anchor charts

-          List of skills being assessed

 

3)      How will you help students accurately measure their own writing growth?

Encouraging students to measure their own learning growth is a powerful tool.  Provide students with their original beginning of the year writing assessment.  Identify specific writing skills for students to evaluate in their own writing.  Some possible skills include:

Primary Students

-          Are my letters formed correctly?

-          Did I put spaces between my words?

-          Did I write in complete sentences?

-          Did I plan my writing?

-          Is my writing on topic?

-          Did I choose interesting vocabulary?

Primary Writing Self-Assessment.jpg

 

Intermediate Students

-          Did I plan my writing?

-          Is my writing on topic?

-          Did I include interesting details to support my big ideas?

-          Did I use details from the text to support my writing?  (If this is a requirement.)

-          Did I vary the structure of my sentences?

-          Did I make interesting word choices?

-          Did I carefully edit my writing for conventions?

- Did I carefully edit my writing for spelling?

Intermediate Writing Self-Assessment.jpg

 

As students write their new piece, they can refer to their beginning of the year writing, looking for ways to improve.  After their writing is edited and revised, they can self-assess their end of year writing, using the same criteria they used to evaluate their beginning of the year writing.

4)       Make the writing assessment useful to you and/or next year’s teacher.

Determine which type of writing will provide you with the most useful information.

·       What personal writing goals did you have for the school year?  How can you organize the assessment to analyze those goals?  Perhaps you are wanting to use your curriculum more when teaching content material.  You may want students to respond to a prompt such as the following:

We have just finished reading the book What To Do With A Problem.  As a group, we have brainstormed various strategies people can use when they have a problem.  Write an opinion essay, stating which three strategies work best for you.  

·       Perhaps your school has a writing improvement plan for all grade levels.  This plan may include writing informational essays, writing in response to text, writing narratives, etc.  Design an end-of-year assessment which will provide the next year’s teacher important information.

Think about the information you want to gather about your students’ writing skills.  Design a prompt that will best give you that information.  Whether you want to compare writing using the same prompt from the start of the school year, determine how well students can write a narrative, or analyze your students’ ability to respond to text, create a writing task which addresses your assessment needs.

Whatever choice you make, think about ways to make the assessment manageable, informative and useful to both you and your students.

 

 

 

 

 

 






The Importance of Feedback

We all need people who will give us feedback.

That's how we improve.

- Bill Gates

 

Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions in January.  By February, some of those resolutions are beginning to wane. The difference between keeping and forgetting a resolution can often be traced to the amount of feedback we receive on our goal.  Whether it be the number on the scale, a count of books read, or the steps taken on our fitness app, timely and meaningful feedback helps all of us stay on track.

Writing and speaking in complete sentences is a classroom expectation.  Including a reason or detail within that sentence is part of our daily routine.  Imagine my chagrin when a student once asked me if that rule included me. Was I expected to write in complete sentences when I commented on their work, including a reason to justify my comment?

Not soon after, I received an appreciation note from a parent. The parent expressed specific examples of why their student enjoyed being part of our classroom community. The note meant so much more than a card that stated I was the world’s greatest teacher!

In the same way, our students need and deserve specific and timely feedback from us in order to grow. An article in a 2014 issue of Edutopia lists 5 Research-Based Tips for providing students meaningful feedback.  (edutopia.org/blog/tips-providing-students-meaningful-feedback-marianne-stenger)

1. Feedback should be Specific—A star or “Good Job” on a paper does not tell a student what they have done well. Instead of “Nice Writing” on a paragraph, point out a specific strength. “You placed a transition word in every big idea sentence. These words help the reader understand your reasons in this paragraph.”

Providing students a skill to focus on and improve in their next piece of writing is also important. For example: “You did a great job writing complete sentences. Many of your sentences start with the word “I”.  Let’s work to have a variety of sentence starters in your writing next time.”

2. Feedback should be Immediate—The more immediate the feedback, the more powerful it is for student learning. Look for ways to streamline your grading process. Think about grading writing as students complete each portion of the writing process. For example, provide feedback on topic sentences as students complete them.  “This topic sentence clearly explains what the paragraph is about. I understand your topic!”

3. Feedback should reflect a student’s progress towards a Goal—Perhaps a student is working on editing their writing, including correct punctuation and capitalization in sentences. Comment on a student’s progress towards that goal.  “Wow, I can see that you worked diligently to put a punctuation mark at the end of every sentence.”

4. Feedback should be given Gently—Know your students. Feedback must be given knowing the receiver.  Choose words you would appreciate receiving if someone was giving you feedback.

5. Feedback should involve the Student– Students should be involved in choosing what is assessed. This may be as simple as asking students what writing they would like you to assess. “What would you like me to look at in this piece of writing?  We’ve been revising sentences. Put a check next to the revised sentence on which you would like me to comment.”

Feedback is essential for everyone. The growth you will see in your students is well worth the effort!

         

Does Any Topic Sentence Work?

We are continuing to focus on informational writing in our classroom.  In order to give this writing context, we have been combining it with our History unit on Trappers and Traders.  We have used this content to review different non-fiction text structures and identify prompts which required us to respond in a specific text structure.  www.writenow-rightnow.com/blog/2018/informational-writing-text-structures-and-prompts-1  As we began to respond to the prompts, students were working to write appropriate topic sentences for each text structure.  This led to a discussion in our classroom – “Does every type of topic sentence work for every type of writing?”

Using the prompts from our study of text structures, we began to experiment with different topic sentence types.  I wanted the students to have a bank of topic sentences they could draw on when asked to write to a variety of informative writing prompts.  As we experimented and wrote informational essays, we collected topic sentences which worked well with each type of text structure.

Compare and Contrast Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Both trappers and traders were involved with trapping beavers.  Write an essay explaining two similarities between these people and two ways their lifestyles were different from one another.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers and traders who worked in the Colorado Territory had both similarities and differences in their lifestyles.

“When” Topic Sentence

When studying the trappers and traders of the early Colorado Territory, historians have found both similarities and differences between these two groups.

“Number Topic” Sentence

The trappers and traders who traveled to the Colorado Territory have many similarities and differences.

Compare and Contrast.jpg

 

Cause and Effect Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers came to the Colorado Territory in the early 1800’s. Write an informative essay explaining a positive and negative effect on the environment due to the arrival of the trappers.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence

The trappers who came to the Colorado Territory had both a positive and negative impact on the natural environment.

“When” Topic Sentence

When the trappers arrived in the Colorado Territory, they had a positive and negative impact on the region’s environment.

“As” Topic Sentence

As historians study the history of Colorado, they have identified both the positive and negative effects on the environment caused by the arrival of the trappers.

 

Description Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had a very distinctive appearance. Write an essay describing the unique clothing of these men.

Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Trappers were easy to identify by their distinctive clothing choices.

“If” Topic Sentence

If spotted on the trail, an early beaver trapper was easy to identify by his clothing and appearance.

“Number” Topic Sentence

The requirements of living outdoors in rugged conditions led trappers to make many unique clothing choices.

 

Problem and Solution Topic Sentences

Prompt:  Once trappers had gathered beaver pelts, they needed a place to gather to trade. Write an essay explaining how trappers solved the problem of trading with others.

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

Determining a way to trade with others was a problem faced by many trappers.

As” Topic Sentence:

As trappers gathered their bounty of beaver skins, they were faced with a problem.  How could they sell their pelts and purchase items they needed for survival?

When” Topic Sentence:

When the beaver trapping season was completed, the trappers were faced with a dilemma.  How could they now trade their pelts and purchase supplies?

Question” Topic Sentence:

“Now that I have trapped these beavers and collected their pelts, how can I exchange this for needed money and supplies?”  This was a question posed by many trappers at the end of the trapping season.

 

Sequential Order Topic Sentences

Prompt: Trappers had to devise the best ways to trap beavers without harming the fur. Write an informative paragraph explaining the steps a trapper followed to capture a beaver.

 

“Just Say It” Topic Sentence:

In order to trap a beaver, the mountain man had to follow specific steps.

“Number” Topic Sentence:

Three steps must be followed in order to successfully trap beavers.

“If – Then” Topic Sentence:

If a mountain man wanted to be a successful beaver trapper, then he must follow specific steps in the correct order.

“As” Topic Sentence:

As men traveled to the Colorado Territory to trap beavers, they quickly learned the steps required to capture these animals.

Through our work with informational text, we have discovered that some types of topic sentences work best with certain text structures.  We have also learned a lot about the lives of the early trappers and traders!  Our fourth-grade writers have gained another tool they can use when writing informational text to a variety of prompts.

 

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” E.L. Doctorow

For the first few weeks of school, we have been concentrating on the components of opinion paragraphs.  My students have learned to gather and categorize ideas, organize plans and write opinion paragraphs which included all the essential parts.  Now that students understood how to effectively write about their opinion, it was time to take the next step: writing opinion paragraphs in response to text.

I wanted the content to be accessible and engaging for all the students. To facilitate that goal, I decided to have students read about a topic which they would easily grasp – choosing a local attraction to take guests to visit.  We began with the following prompt:

Students highlighted the format, topic and big ideas in their prompt.

Students highlighted the format, topic and big ideas in their prompt.

You have friends travelling to Colorado Springs on vacation. You are responsible for choosing one place to take your friends to show them the sights. To help make your decision, you will choose and research an attraction in Colorado Springs to visit. After making your choice, write an opinion essay explaining the attraction you have chosen to visit. You must include three reasons why this attraction is the best location to take your friends.

The focus of this learning engagement was for students to write in response to text. With that in mind, I chose two websites for the students to use as research. The websites contained information about the local attractions using words and pictures. We discussed possible factors we might use when choosing a place to visit. Suggestions such as price, discounts, activities, food options, uniqueness to the area and being family friendly were all given.

Students were assigned the websites through their google classroom accounts. After previewing the possible choices, we selected five attractions to focus on as a class. Students then selected the attraction in which they were most interested and researched the appropriate site. Wanting the information to be accessible to all students regardless of reading ability, I wanted students to share the information they had learned. I provided students chart paper labeled with each attraction. As a group, students discussed and recorded the information they had found concerning each place to visit.

chart 1 (2).jpg

On the following day, students were asked to create their individual writing plans. Reviewing the prompt, we remembered that our writing required three big ideas. Using the chart paper, students looked for similar ideas to classify together. As they had spent time gathering and discussing ideas, the planning came easily.

Plan (2).jpg

With completed plans in hand, the students eagerly began to write. Many chose to begin their paragraphs with an “Although” topic sentence, acknowledging that other activity choices would also be enjoyable. They easily incorporated information they had learned from the text, the goal of the lesson.

The students’ engagement with their writing made it an appropriate piece to take all the way through publishing. With green and red pencils in hand, students edited their work, tracing all punctuation in red and all capitals in green. They typed their finished product, adding an image of the attraction to provide the reader with additional information.

Rough Draft.jpg

The transition to opinion writing based on text had gone seamlessly as we had the needed writing skills in place from previous lessons. The students had been interested in the topic, engaged in the research, and excited to edit their work and share it with each other!  We had definitely been exploring and learning.

Pikes Peak.jpg

A Successful Mistake

Sometimes we all need a different perspective!  We had been working with kindergartners on writing a narrative.  The students had drawn pictures prior to writing, illustrating the setting and 2 events that took place in that setting.  They had written about their time in the library, an event on the playground, and a special time with their families.

We now wanted to expand their writing to include a problem that the characters needed to solve.  Along with a problem to solve, I wanted to provide students an opportunity to add details to their writing.  I brought in sheets of paper cut in 4” by 18” strips for them to draw pictures onto to help plan their writing.  I folded the strips into four rectangles and we were ready to start.  Purely be accident, I taped the paper to the board vertically beside a piece of chart paper. With the paper hung vertically instead of horizontally, the order of the pictures matched the writing we would be doing on the paper.  We decided to try a different perspective on writing.

To model the process, I began writing a story about buying some apples in the grocery story. Before writing the story, I told the students we would sketch out the essential events.  The first box was for my setting. I quickly sketched a picture of me standing in front of a display of red, juicy apples.  This was where my story would take place.

The next box was for the problem.  As a group, we discussed the importance of the problem.  Just putting the apples into a bag and putting the bag into my grocery cart did not make a very exciting story.  What problem could I encounter?  In the second box I drew a picture of me placing apples in a plastic bag.  Unfortunately, there was a hole in the bottom of the bag and the apples were dropping out all over the floor.

The third picture was where we would sketch the solution. The very kind grocery store worker had come and helped me gather up all the apples I had spilled. I drew a picture showing this solution. The final box was designated for the conclusion. The story could not just abruptly end, but needed to show how the character reacted to the events.  What happened at the end of the story? How was the character feeling at the end of the story? In the final box of my paper, I sketched a picture of me happily leaving the store with a bag of apples in my hands.

Now that the story was planned, it was time to write.  Leaving the picture strip taped next to the chart paper, we began to write.  How could we start our story?  What is happening in the first box? Together we wrote:

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch.

 

We folded the first square behind the second square, so our second picture was now on top.  Students could easily see what we were writing about next.

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor.

We repeated the process for the third picture, folding the first two pictures back. The third picture was now on top.

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor. I was about to cry. A kind man who worked at the store came and helped me collect all my apples.

We are ready to conclude our story. We want to let our readers know how the characters are feeling at the end of the story. 

One day I went to the grocery store to buy some apples for my lunch. I opened a plastic bag to carry my apples.  I didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom.  As I put the apples in the bag, they all fell on the floor. I was about to cry. A kind man who worked at the story came and helped me collect all my apples.  I paid for my apples and left the store feeling happy and ready for a snack.

The students were ready to write on their own, with some support.  To help guide their writing, we all chose the park for our original setting.  Students drew a picture of the park in the first box.  After brainstorming ideas, students drew a possible problem they might have in the park in the second box.  The third box was used for drawing the solution and the final box showed how the characters felts at the end of the story.

Although the students wrote independently, we followed the steps together. I was impressed how easily it was for them to fold the paper and write their story in order.  They were able to write a story with a setting, problem, solution and conclusion.  Accidentally hanging the paper incorrectly had been a successful mistake!

1.jpg

 

 

Expanding Our Writing - Multiple Paragraph Essays

As I recently worked with a class of 5th graders, it was apparent they had mastered opinion paragraph writing.  Their topic sentences were solid, their big idea sentences clear and their detail sentences were examples of how a long and luxurious sentence should be written.  It was time to challenge these writers.

                In Social Studies we had been reviewing and mastering note-taking skills.  The learning objective for the next few days in writing would be to combine note-taking and opinion writing, two skills the students had already mastered.  The new skill we were adding would be taking our opinion writing to a multiple paragraph essay with the inclusion of an introductory and concluding paragraph.

                We began with a prompt.  The prompt was timely, as many of the students were planning their holiday vacations.    

You will read informational articles about three different National Parks / Monuments.   Think about the reasons that encourage people to choose a historical place to visit on vacation.  Read the information about each location.  Choose one site from the list and write an essay persuading someone to visit the site you chose.  Include three reasons people would choose to visit this historical site.

These 5th graders quickly realized that before choosing a location they must first gather information about that park.  To help narrow their search, I told them they must choose between Gettysburg, Little Big Horn, and Mesa Verde. These parks were chosen as they might not be as well-known to the students, forcing them to use their research skills, not simply background knowledge.

                Students were asked to research all three parks, looking for reasons people might choose to visit this area.  This led to a conversation with students about what things influenced people to choose a specific place.  For example, the entry fee might be $9.00 per person.  Taken alone, that is merely a fact. How might ticket cost become a reason people would choose a destination?

                Independently taking notes on each park was the first step.  Students were given a class period to randomly gather notes on each park – no organization was required at this point.  Students independently collected their research on notebook paper.  At the conclusion of this time period, everyone chose a location in which they were interested.  Using large chart paper, common groups gathered and compiled the information they had found.

                Referring back to the prompt, students reviewed their task. Each student must choose a park and then write a multi-paragraph essay, convincing the reader that their choice is best.  Taking their notes, students sorted their ideas into three Big Ideas and composed a plan.  They were ready to begin their writing!

                The concept of taking each Big Idea and its Supporting Details and turning it into a separate paragraph was easy for these writers.  However, the question soon arose, “What type of topic sentence do we use?”  This was the perfect segue into the need to stretch a topic sentence into a topic paragraph.

                When we began to master various topic sentences, we did not learn each type in a single day.  In the same way, we learned different ways to write a topic paragraph slowly. We began by practicing three different ways to introduce a topic paragraph.  The purpose of the initial sentence is to capture the readers’ attention.   Information about the topic would follow after this attention grabbing sentence.

After dividing a piece of paper into quadrants, we labeled three of the sections Question, Hyperbole, and Statistical Information.  These were the types of attention grabbing sentences we would use to introduce out topic paragraph.  Using one of the parks as a topic, we began with writing a hyperbole, or exaggerated sentence.  (This is definitely a student favorite!) 

Mesa Verde, the best park in the world, will lead you to an explosion of exhilaration.  It is a whole new world when it comes to thrill.  

Now that you have grabbed your reader’s attention, you must now inform them of the information to follow in your essay.  As you have already organized your ideas on a plan, this step is easy. Simply list the big ideas found on your plan in a sentence.

This National Park is best known for its pueblo homes, hiking trails and tours. 

Students repeated the process using both a question and statistical information as attention grabbers.  They now had three topic paragraphs from which to choose. 

Writing the body of the essay was a familiar task.  Through the use of extended details, each big idea on the plan became a separate paragraph.  The students quickly completed this portion of their writing and were soon ready to write a conclusion.

A concluding paragraph of a multiple paragraph essay also has additional requirements. We learned that a concluding paragraph must contain the following three sentences:

·         A concluding sentence, similar to a single paragraph

·         A reminder of the big ideas

·         A call to action

As a writer, however, you get to choose the order of these sentences.  We again folded a piece of paper to help us focus our practice.  The students practiced arranging these three sentences to conclude their writing until they found the most interesting order. 

The students were proud of their accomplishments and asked to publish their writing.  After revising and editing their drafts, the final essays were ready to be typed and published.  Their notes, plans, topic paragraphs and conclusions were filed in their writing binders to use as guides for the next essay they would write.  These 5th graders had spent multiple daysengaged in a topic.  Through writing an introductory and concluding paragraph, these writers had stretched their writing from a single paragraph to a multiple paragraph essay.

 

Step by Step, (or not giving in to “Get it done, Now!”)

Every class has its own personality.  This is both a joy and a challenge of teaching.  Organization and classroom management styles that work perfectly one year may prove ineffective the next year.  I have been reminded of this truth during the current school year.  To insure student engagement and success with this year’s students, I need to provide instruction which adds new skills in a heightened sequential manner.  Definite strategies are needed to help students deepen their critical thinking skills.

            For the past week, we have been studying the prehistoric people of Colorado.  My goal was for students to make the connection:  As prehistoric people moved from hunter/gatherers to farmers, they had time to build homes and improve their lives. I knew that this required higher level thinking skills and that students would need to follow specific steps in order to reach this understanding.

 

We began by setting up a chart where students could record their notes.  The chart was divided into Dates, Homes, Food, Hunting/Farming and Additional Facts.  As we studied each group of people, students completed the correct portion of the chart. 

The students had acquired knowledge about these groups of people, but I now wanted them to draw some conclusions from this history lesson.  What could we learn from these people outside of the facts of their existence?

 

Using chart paper, students drew pictures of the prehistoric people in chronological order.  They illustrated the homes, food sources, weapons and tools used by each group of people.  I was thrilled to watch students use ipads to discover ways to draw a kiva or an atlatl.  Every student was engaged in drawing their chart and putting forth their best effort.

Now it was time to do some critical thinking.  I introduced the phrase: “conclude or draw a conclusion,” which means to make a judgement based on evidence.  Students studied each column in their chart and drew a conclusion.  Student examples included: “Studying the prehistoric peoples’ homes, I can conclude that the people moved from living in caves and lean-tos, to building pueblos.  When they lived in caves they moved from place to place.  As they built homes, they stayed in one place.” 

We repeated the same process for food sources and weapons / tools.  Now it was time for the point of the lesson. What conclusion could students draw on how each aspect of these people’s lives impacted other areas?  I was thrilled as I listened to students draw this important connection!

As a culminating activity, students were able to share their learning using a photo and voice recording program.  (I gave my students a choice between Adobe Spark or Explain Everything.)  As they had already given their conclusions deep thought and had written their responses, this final step was seamless and enjoyable!

The point of this learning engagement was not only for students to learn about Colorado’s ancient people, but to also deepen their critical thinking skills. In addition to the content, the goal was for students to learn how to learn, to learn how to document their learning, and most importantly, how to draw a conclusion and share their thinking with others.  Slowing down and going step by step had worked well for all of us.