write now right now

Assessing Assessments

In the last few weeks, I have had two “away from school” interactions regarding the concept of assessments.  The first experience came while visiting a new gym. Prior to taking the complimentary class, I was asked to fill out a goal and health assessment. The instructor said the information would be used to help me plan an appropriate exercise program and chart my progress as I attend classes.

A few days later I was with my 13-month old granddaughter at an ophthalmology appointment.  After performing multiple tests, the doctor determined she needed glasses to strengthen one of her eyes. While making a two-month follow-up appointment, the doctor told us that we would check her progress based on the initial tests he had performed that day.

Teachers may find themselves overwhelmed with student assessments at the start of the school year.   We, at Write Now – Right Now, are often asked if we recommend that teachers have their students complete a writing assessment at the beginning of the year.  If you are debating this question, consider the following questions:

·       Is a baseline, or beginning of the year, writing assessment a requirement at your school? 

·       Do you have a reason or plan for using the assessment results?

·       Can you give the assessment in a reasonable amount of time?

The answers to these questions will help you answer the assessment question.  The following are some tips to make a beginning of the year writing assessment positive for both you and your students.

Determine the assessment’s purpose

Why are you giving the assessment?  Keep this purpose in mind through-out the process. 

A Note to Kindergarten Teachers:  You may choose to do the initial assessment when you believe your students are ready to begin writing instruction.  Consider when the purpose of the assessment will be most appropriate.

Standardize the assessment

This is especially important if you are working with a grade level team.  Prior to giving the assessment, choose a prompt for all students to follow, along with the time constraints provided.  Use or develop a standardized grade-level rubric.

Write a prompt which provides students guidance in what to write

Do you want students to write an expository or narrative piece?  We recommend providing an opinion prompt on a topic which students already know.  In this way, you will be able to assess students’ writing, not their knowledge on a subject area. Include in the directions the number of big ideas or details students should provide in their writing.

Provide enough time for most students to complete the writing task

Teachers give pre-assessments as an indication of skills students already possess.  In a writing assessment, it is not necessary for every student to complete the writing task.  When time is up, simply collect students’ writing.  It is helpful to note both students who rush to completion and those who will require extra time.

Record non-writing behaviors / trends

Do you have students who immediately break their pencil or go to the bathroom as soon you mention writing?  Are there students who stare into space the entire writing time, “thinking about what to write about?”  Do you have students who need constant feedback and reinforcement during the writing time?

Use the “piles” grading method

We recommend first reading each paper and then putting students’ initial writing samples in piles – Good Writing, Writing in Progress, and Need Extensive Help, or whatever category works for you.  As you read students’ work, put the papers in one of these three piles. Remember, you are assessing writing using end of year writing standards.  As these beginning of the year assessments are not used for a grade, this generalized assessment protocol will provide you with all the information you need.

Look for patterns

As you read students’ writing, do any patterns become evident?  Do students use a similar plan?  Are conventions an area of strength or concern?  Are students excited or reluctant to write?  Is student writing organized, did students stay on topic, etc?

Keep writing samples to show students later

We all need to see progress. Keep these initial writing samples to show students later in the year. We recommend showing them to students prior to a midyear writing assessment. It is encouraging for students to see where they have been and how far they have come as writers.

Teachers are busy people!  Taking a moment to assess your assessments, making them relevant, useful and efficient is time well spent.

Cause: An Engaging Cause and Effect Lesson Effect: Students Engaged, Learning and No Papers to Grade!

I was recently in a 5th grade classroom where the students were just starting to delve into the concept of cause and effect.  The focus of the lesson was to provide students with strategies to help them correctly identify cause and effect relationships in text.  When asked what they already knew about this skill, students could explain that the two concepts were linked to one another, and that one action led to another.

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To begin the lesson, students created a two-column chart.  The left side of the chart was titled Cause and the right side of the chart was titled Effect.  We then read the 5th graders the picture book If You Give a Cat a Cupcake by Laura Numeroff.  https://www.amazon.com/You-Give-Cat-Cupcake-Books/dp/0060283246  Fifth graders love the opportunity to listen to picture books and they were enthralled with the story.  While reading the book, I slowly moved around the room. As I was walking and reading, these older students were whipping around in their seats, following me with their eyes as they intently listened to the simple story.

We first read the book for the sheer enjoyment of listening to the story. During the second reading, the students and I were looking for cause and effect relationships.  As we found a cause, we would write it on our chart, followed by the effect of this action. The students quickly noticed that the cause must come first, as it is the catalyst for the effect.

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The next step was for students to create an anchor chart to keep in their Reading and Writing Folders. Completed with the students, this chart included the definition of cause and effect, examples, and key words they might find in the text when looking for cause and effect. When students are a part of creating an anchor chart, the information becomes relevant and useful to them.  

Students then browsed other If you Give…books and created a second cause and effect chart independently. Students were engaged in their reading and thrilled to be able to find cause and effect relationships throughout the new books.

 

The classroom teacher and I wanted to complete a quick formative assessment to see who required extra support on this skill. Each student took a quarter sheet of paper and in the corner of one side wrote “Cause.”  In the opposite corner, students wrote “Effect.” Students could choose to either write a Cause or Effect sentence in the appropriate corner. They then exchanged their paper with another student in the class, who wrote the relating sentence. For example: A student wrote: Cause: Tom Brady threw an interception in the last minute of the game. His partner then wrote Effect: Tom’s team lost the game to the Denver Broncos.  Another student wrote:  Effect: The vegetables in the garden were destroyed.  His partner wrote:  Cause:  Grandpa forgot to lock the gate on the sheep pen.

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Student partners shared their sentences.  As they shared, their teacher took notes on only those students she felt needed extra instruction. The following day she planned to meet with those students during a small group instruction time. All students whose name she had not written down received a passing grade on this assignment.  Within a 15 minute assessment period, the teacher had given every student an assessment and knew who needed additional support.  More importantly, the students had personally interacted with the concept of Cause and Effect and solidified their learning through the creation of an anchor chart. The students had mastered a reading and writing concept and the teacher was not taking home a stack of papers to grade! 

Three Things About Me

While sorting books and paper at the end of the school year, I overheard one of my 4th grade boys mutter under his breath, “I hate the last day of school.  On the last day of school, we all know each other.  On the first day of school, we just have to start all over, getting to know the teacher and each other.”

The last days of school are bittersweet for teachers and students alike.  The prospect of a change in schedule and extra time to just breathe is alluring to young and old alike.  However, in the midst of all the anticipation, this student’s comment caught me off guard.  We had spent the last few weeks involved in end-of-year testing.  The students first took PAARC and the standardized Colorado 4th Grade Social Studies Test. A week later students demonstrated their progress on STAR – another standardized reading and math test.  Finally we measured students’ reading and math fluency using another standardized measurement.  I was passing along reams of academic data to the next year’s teacher.  Yet these numbers, while important, did not tell the full story of the individual they represented. 

After gathering the class together, we sat on the floor and talked about ways we had learned about each other this year.  Morning Meeting had been an integral part of our day.  https://www.responsiveclassroom.org/product/morning-meeting-book/  Each morning we gathered together and took turns sharing significant events in our lives.  As a class we celebrated the arrival of new siblings, the adoption of a puppy and soccer games won or lost.  This time together was one way we learned more about each other. 

Since we couldn’t share all we learned about one another with a new teacher, I posed the question, “What do you want next year’s teacher to know about you?  How can we share that information with them?”  The students quickly responded, “Let’s write our fifth grade teacher a letter!”  One student grinned and said to me, “The topic is all about me and the format is a letter.”  I have to admit, I was proud!  Grabbing paper and pencil, the students went to work.

Reading their letters, I was so impressed with the students’ sincerity. They wanted their teacher to know about their strengths and dreams – not how many words they read per minute.  Some student samples: 

“I need my space organized.  I get distracted by clutter.”

“I hate to read!  I’ll do it when you ask me to, but I’d rather draw.”

“I’m very emotional.  When I’m happy, I’m really happy.  But when I’m angry I need calming down.”

“Moving is important to me.  I can’t pay attention if I have to sit too long.”

As I read their letters, I was impressed by how well these 9 and 10 year olds expressed their feelings.  I’m reflecting on how to better get to know my students from day one next year.  We’d love to hear from you.  How do you build your classroom community? 

If I Were In Charge Of The World . . . .

During the past few weeks, we have been studying different forms of government.   Our novel studies included the books Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin and The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.  Both books are focused on a child’s experience living under specific forms of government.  In addition, we researched and studied the United States government, both on the national and state level. 

As a writing engagement, we read Judith Viorst’s classic poem, If I Were in Charge of the World. After reading the poem, students were given the prompt“Your task is to write an informative, multi-paragraph essay about three changes you would make if you were suddenly in charge of the world.  Include reasons why this change would be positive and impactful to others.

The students were off!  The room became a buzz of conversation as students bounced their ideas off one another.  Their responses ranged from global and serious to fanciful.  To help focus the students’ thinking, we posted the following questions to consider.

  • How would the change benefit others?

  • Who might care about this change?

  • How would this change impact others?

With these questions in mind, students were able to better sort their ideas and decide on three changes they would make.  Their best thinking was then put in an informative writing plan.

It was time to review the prompt.  Students quickly identified the format required – a multi-paragraph essay.  The students realized that their big ideas could each be stretched into individual paragraphs, but we would still need both an introduction and a conclusion. 

Students now had a real reason to learn how to write introductory paragraphs.  As this was our first experience writing introductory paragraphs, we were going to write two sentences.  We began with writing an “Although” topic sentence we would use for any informative paragraph – Although there are many changes the world needs, I would make these three if I were in charge of the world.  In our second sentence, we were going to inform our readers what we would be writing in our paragraphs.  Looking at our plan, we merely needed to list the three big ideas we would be addressing – I would allow children to vote, place pets in elementary schools and discover an inexpensive way to desalinate water.  Putting the two sentences together, we had an introductory paragraph.  In order to practice the skill and have a second paragraph from which to choose, we wrote a second introductory paragraph, this time starting with an If, Then topic sentence. If I were given the opportunity to be in charge of the world, then I would make a few very important changes to better the lives of others. Then we can add our second sentence with the big ideas listed in a sentence.

Writing the big idea paragraphs was a simple task for our fourth grade writers.  It was easy for them to understand that each paragraph needed to start with a transition word and did not require a separate topic sentence.  Students added the necessary details, referring back to the questions posed earlier.

Only one thing was left to do.  Our essays needed a conclusion.  Luckily, we had written two introductory paragraphs.  Often, if we write two introductory paragraphs we can use one as our concluding paragraph!  Students were able to complete their essays using the second topic sentence they had written!  Our first experience writing a multi-paragraph essay had been a success!

A Picture's Worth A Thousand Words

 

We have been busy in our classroom – both practicing our compare and contrast skills and learning Colorado history.  We were eager to combine these skills through the use of photographs.

To begin, I compiled two sets of pictures focused on transportation. The first set of pictures were taken in 1910 and the second set were pictures of 2010.  As we began to analyze the photos we made our first discovery, in order to discuss the transportation shown, we first needed to agree on the transportation’s names.  The room was abuzz with questions . . .

Is this a carriage or a buggy?  Is there a difference?”

“What could we name a trolley that’s pulled by a horse?”

“Would you want to ride in that?”


“Is there a difference between a tram and a monorail?”

My fourth graders were involved in language, discussing among themselves the very best label for each mode of transportation.  It was the best type of “just-in time learning”, as it was vocabulary acquisition with a purpose.

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It was time to focus on our task.  I presented them with the prompt . . .

Analyze the 2 groups of photos depicting modes of transportation taken a century apart.  Choose three different modes of transportation depicted in both photographs.  Write a paragraph comparing and contrasting these three modes of transportation from 1910 and 2010.

We easily located the format (paragraph), the topic (modes of transportation a century apart) and the big ideas (compare and contrast) in our prompt.  As a group, we began to determine the best way to attack this task. 

We decided upon a two-column chart, simply listing the modes of transportation found in the photograph groups.  After listing transportation found 100 years ago and today, we were able to identify similar transportation found in both these time period.  We circled the four that were found in both lists.  Now we needed to determine similarities and differences.

The students decided that a column chart was the most efficient way to compare and contrast these forms of transportations.  As we analyzed the pictures carefully, we determined the similarities and differences between the transportation modes.  Again the conversation was rich, as we discussed whether we could use our background knowledge linked to the pictures or rather we could only use what we could see in the pictures.

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Upon completing our observations, it was time to complete a plan.  We had two ways in which we could organize our plan – either with similarities and differences as our big ideas, or with each mode of transportation as our big ideas.  Although I left the choice up to the students, the majority felt they could best organize their ideas using the modes of transportation as big ideas.  As the prompt asked us to compare and contrast the 1920 and 2010 modes of transportation, our details became how each mode was similar to each other and how they were different.  By accessing all their previous thinking, students quickly and effortlessly created a writing plan.

For this lesson, I only required the students to complete their writing plan.  I had been more concerned about the process – how can we carefully and methodically analyze pictures to determine similarities and differences.  Best of all – my students loved this learning engagement. They had been detectives looking at pictures, made thoughtful observations, and discovered meaningful similarities and differences.  Together we had experienced digital literacy – and had a wonderful hour of dialogue and learning!

Teaching 2nd Graders to Read a Prompt!

I spent this afternoon in a 2nd grade classroom and was overjoyed to watch what those students can do!  I had been working on reading and dissecting challenging prompts with the older students and I was curious to learn what the younger "little people" might do with the same task. 

We gave each student the following prompt:  Today you will be reading an article titled "All About Seuss."  In the article you will learn many things about Dr. Seuss.  Write an essay that explains how he got his name, one of the books he wrote, and how we honor him.  Remember to use evidence from the text to support your writing.

Students were asked to read the prompt and locate the format that was required.  They quickly understood that format was how we present our information and circled the words "write an essay" in the prompt.  Next, we asked the 2nd graders to locate the topic of the prompt.  They are well aware that the topic is what their writing will be about.  A square was placed around the words "learn many things about Dr. Seuss."  Now it was time to find the big ideas.  There are three!  Students underlined the following three phrases - how he got his name, one of the books he wrote, and how we honor him.  Wow!  We were ready to create a plan!

It was amazingly easy for these young students to transfer the important information from the prompt to a plan.  The practice they have been provided in making plans was very evident.  They are now ready to read the article with a clear purpose in mind.  Tomorrow's lesson will focus on reading the text and finding details to complete the plan.  I can't wait to see what they'll accomplish!