Workshop as Test Prep?

Today my students finished the NJASK standardized test for 6th grade.  Well, they didn’t really finish- math is tomorrow and Thursday.  But the language arts section is done now!  This afternoon I took an informal, conversational survey of my students.  They were all really happy because they felt that the test was “So easy! Much easier than last year!”.  I didn’t notice anything different from years past, so I asked them what we had done this year that they thought best prepared them for the test.  Needless to say, I was thrilled with their answers.

  • Our weekly Article of the Week.  They said that reading the articles helped them feel more confident about informational text, and the written response each week gave them more confidence.
  • The Forty Book Challenge.  Requiring them to read 40 books increased their speed and fluency.  A lot of them said it was the first year that they didn’t struggle to finish the reading selections.
  • Using boxes and bullets for the persuasive essay (a la Calkins)
  • Our read alouds.  They had a wide range of texts to draw on, and they remembered a lot of conversations while answering the multiple choice questions.  One student told me that he just imagined the questions being read in my voice, like they were a part of our read aloud conversation.
  • Letter-essays.  Again, they felt confident about writing a lot in a set amount of time.  And they told me they had a lot of strategies to draw on when they got stuck.
  • Our one week of test prep before the test.  They really liked that we focused on test writing as a genre, because they felt that they really understood the ins and outs of the test better.  Also, they loved the “hamburger method” (from Better Answers) for answering open-ended reading response questions.

But my favorite answer?  “The old ladies!”  See, I tell my classes that the written responses to the NJASK are hand-graded by old, retired teachers who are locked in a conference room for an entire weekend and do nothing but grade tests.  They get cranky, their coffee gets stale, and they don’t want to read messy or bad writing.  They don’t want to have to struggle to understand what the writer means.  I say this jokingly, asking my students how many of them have to explain technology to their grandparents in great detail when all they want is to tell a story about a Youtube video.  This always bring laughs but a lot of nods.  Turns out, you need to explain the same amount in your writing!  I remind them that the cranky old teachers only have the answer sheets in front of them, so you need to explain in DETAIL.  Not just glossing over facts or opinions!

Imagine my surprise when one student raised her hand today and told me that made all the difference in the world for her.  Suddenly, she had an audience in mind when writing.  She didn’t make assumptions that her reader was going to be a teacher who knew her well and could make assumptions about what she meant.  As she told me this, I watched the rest of my class nod in agreement.  Who knew?!  Just picturing an old, cranky teacher was enough to remind them to elevate their writing.  We talk about audience all the time, but this time it clicked.

Needless to say, I am thrilled that everything I do as a part of workshop translated to the test for my students.  I don’t do months of test prep, I don’t focus on the test as the be-all end-all of the year, but they all took it seriously.  What I saw as I was walking around thrilled me!  Of course, I won’t see results until the end of the summer, but I feel confident that they all did their best work.  :)

Bella & Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich

Back in April I was lucky enough to have coffee with Kathi Appelt, who was in the area for a school visit.  We had a great time talking about books, writing, and blogging.  Before parting ways, Kathi told me she had a book I absolutely must read.  She said she knew I would love Bella & Bean by Rebecca Kai Dotlich.  I wrote down the title and promised to look for it.  Of course, I promptly forgot about all of this in the chaos that is the end of the school year.

Last week I was at a district meeting and was thrilled when the supervisor pulled out Bella & Bean for a read-aloud!  Of course, I immediately remembered Kathi’s recommendation (and then felt bad for forgetting!).  After listening to the story, I was hooked.  Kathi was 100% right- I loved it!  I can not wait to share this book with my students this year.  

Bella and Bean are best friends.  Bella is a writer- a poet- always playing with words and concentrating on her writing.  She begins each day ready to sit at her window-side desk, writing about the beauty around her.  her best friend Bean is outgoing, fun, and hands-on.  She’s always trying to get Bella to put her writing aside to come and play by the pond.  All day long Bean pokes her head through the window of Bella’s house and tries to get her attention.  She shows Bella her new hat, shows off her “cute toes”, and tries to convince Bella to think of the word “Bean” if she is concentrating on words.  Bean is adorable and I wanted to run off with her!  The illustrations by Aileen Leijten are precious and you just want to dive into the book with Bean.


But Bella will not be distracted.  She even gets grumpy with Bean!

 

I don’t have time for hats, Bean,’ said Bella. ‘I’m writing new poems…I can’t think about rivers and moons when you are talking about hats,’ said Bella.”

Bella perseveres through the distractions and is rewarded- her poems are stunning!    

But what about Bean?  And their friendship?  I won’t spoil the ending for you because it is absolutely perfect.  I admit I couldn’t wait to find out what happened while we were being read to!  I will just tell you to get this book ASAP.

I can not wait to use this picture book in my 6th grade classroom this upcoming year.  There are so many ways I foresee using it.  Of course, it will be wonderful during our poetry unit.  Bella’s poems are not only wonderful but her methods and wordplay will inspire many students.  It will be a great mentor text for my 6th graders.  One of my favorite lines says, 

“The sky poured stars like sugar…”

How gorgeous is that?  I love it!  I can already see Bella inspiring many of my writers.  She certainly inspired me.

Bella & Bean is also a window into the writing process.  I think I will start our writing workshop this year with this book.  What a wonderful way to introduce my students to the workshop we will be a part of during the year.  

But the story is not just about writing.  It’s beautiful on so many levels.  It’s also about friendship and tolerance.  It’s about taking time to live life, not just watch it go by.  It’s about being disciplined but also having fun.  It’s about opposites attracting. Due to the multi-layered text, this book is perfect for kids of all ages, from preschool to high school.  In fact, the adults at my meeting all fell in love with it!  There is no age limit on this one.  And anyone who aspires to be a writer can’t help but be inspired by  Bella & Bean.  Be sure to pick this up for your classroom library!  And maybe even for your teacher library. ;)

Assessing Student Writing

One theme that rose to the top of my “What Do You Want to Know?” series was assessing students. In reading and writing workshop, assessment can be a struggle for those who are tied to a standard grading scale of A-F. However, Mark Overmeyer has a new book coming out in July, What Student Writing Teaches Us, that focuses on using assessment to empower and improve student writing.

“Assessment, when used correctly in a formative way, can empower students and teachers to not only improve, but better yet, to believe in themselves as writers and teachers of writing. And once you believe you are a writer, and a teacher of writing, any barrier, no matter how imposing, begins to crumble.”
—Mark Overmeyer

Right now, you can read What Student Writing Teaches Us on the Stenhouse website for FREE! What a fantastic way to start the summer.    Even better?  Mark Overmeyer will be answering your questions here in June 25th!  So get reading and come back to this post to ask Mark your questions about formative assessment.

And seeing as this is my birthday giveaway month, there is a contest you can enter, too!

 Contest details from the Stenhouse website:


In his new book Mark discusses how a writing prompt that might seem limiting actually helps students focus their writing. He talks about a second-grade classroom where students were excited to write about the following topic: “Your baby brother is inside the house and you are locked out and need to figure out a way to get back in.”

Your challenge is to write a quick, piece in 500 words or less for that prompt. Mark will select the winner, who will receive a free, signed copy of What Student Writing Teaches Us. Submit your entries by July 15 to zmcmullin@stenhouse.com. The best entries will be posted on the Stenhouse blog and website.

 

How awesome is that?  I’m about halfway through the book and I’ve already taken copious notes- it’s a great book for teachers of writing!

What Do You Want to Know?

As readers of this blog know, I teach 6th grade language arts using a workshop method.  It’s not always easy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!  Is there anything you are wondering about how I handle reading and writing workshop in my classroom?  If so, comment here and I promise to answer any questions!

This I Believe

Today I presented my classes with a challenge/contest.  I told them that I was so proud of their efforts during the Slice of Life Challenge that I wanted to give them another opportunity to show off their writing.  On a voluntary basis a few of them will be meeting with me and drafting personal essays for NPR’s This I Believe program.  

What is This I Believe?

This I Believe is an international project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives. These short statements of belief, written by people from all walks of life, are archived here and featured on public radio in the United States, as well as in regular broadcasts on NPR. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

NPR has some great curriculum resources on their site and examples of various essays.  I can’t wait to get started with my kids after break!

Memoir Mondays

My classes began revising their memoirs today while I did my best to conference with each of them. As I read memoir after memoir, I was stunned by the way my students were baring their souls in their pieces. I read about blankies that taught them about growing up, sons who watched their fathers recover from illnesses all the time growing closer to them, and granddaughters who are afraid of of losing their grandfathers to cancer. It took all I had to fight back tears as I read them.

This is the first year I have taught memoir, because I never really felt comfortable with it. It’s not as “scripted” as personal narrative or personal essay. That tends to intimidate my kids, who have never had workshop before.  I usually have to do a lot of hand-holding and memoir doesn’t lend itself to that.  It’s a lot more free-form and requires the writer to open up and expose themselves more that a personal narrative does.  But the rewards have been wonderful and we are only in the revision stage!

Over the next week we will finish our memoirs.  We will mount them on scrapbook paper, organize them, and bind them together into a book.  The book will be shared with their parents during conferences in the middle of March.  I can’t wait to share these awesome, soul-searching pieces with the parents.

Slice of Life Classroom Challenge

Are you looking for a cool way to integrate more writing into your classroom this coming month?  If so, be sure to check out Two Writing Teachers!  Stacey just posted a short guide on how to get ready to host a Slice of Life Challenge in your classroom.  I hosted a challenge with my class last year and it was a ton of fun.  I am looking forward to doing so again.

This week I plan to come up with an easier tracking system, because I was overwhelmed with my 50 students last year.  Whatever I decide to use, I will blow up on the poster machine.  And I need to figure out what I will give out as a reward to those who complete the challenge.

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