Posts Tagged ‘student work’

So I’ve been thinking about doing student assignments again. I wrote about it a little while ago too.

This time I did the in-class writing for our summer reading book. The prompt is a little different than last year. The book is the same, but because I changed one of the essential questions for the course (it’s so much better now), changing the prompt a bit made sense as well. 

This is writing done in a single class period; students will have the topic in advance; they can come in with notes. We will spend an additional class period organizing thoughts and getting feedback on the initial idea. It’s not a surprise. However, I was wondering whether it really was too much to tackle in this one short assignment. My addition to the topic certainly makes it more interesting, but it also requires more thought.

I sat down to write the paper myself. I spent about a class period’s worth of time. Here’s what I discovered:

  • It’s a challenging topic and requires that students think not just about the book but about their personal experience with the book and how that experience is influenced by or connected to other reading experiences.
  • It’s also a reasonable topic that gives students room to move.
  • Although using evidence from the text will be important, referencing episodes or chapters may be more useful than actual direct quotations.
  • It made me clarify my own ideas more and get to more of a conclusion, even in the limited scope of this project. 
  • It also made me push my personal connections to the text in a way that ended up being surprising. I found connections to my other reading habits that I hadn’t thought about before.
  • I also realized that I did not organize my writing in the way that I said might be a good idea. A student had asked about a potential paragraphing strategy that I agreed would be an option, but I didn’t end up using that format.

So the next day I went to class. I put some process notes and guiding questions on the board for people to be working through with their planning. Then, I told the class that I had written the paper yesterday. I shared what I learned and how I ended up tackling the topic, always stressing that my plan was only one plan. I didn’t read them my paper, although I did share the gist of it and some personal connections I made. The class was pretty surprised. And in thinking about it later, it wasn’t just surprise, it was respect and feeling respected. 

I am reminded how much students appreciate me being a learner alongside them. I’m happy to share the fact that I am wrestling with the topic not only because it’s good work to do but also because I want to ensure that it’s work that is worth their time. They get that I might (or might not for some) read a lot more books than they do and that I get to set the syllabus, but they also appreciate and respond well to us being in it together. I can say we are a community of learners and are working on our collective understanding all I want. I can even write it down and pass it out. But if I’m not making my work visible, then my lovely ideas about community are just ideas. 


So, I’ve been thinking about the books we read in language arts. We do not use a basal reader. We read novels (I don’t like the term “trade books” do you?) and teach skills through them.

It’s 5th grade. We’re not reading “the cannon.” We, my 5th grade teacher colleagues and I, make changes here and there as to the books we read. Sometimes a book just becomes dated or not appealing to our students. There are so many great books out there, we don’t need to keep something in the curriculum that is not grabbing people.

Spring waterOne of the books that we read is Tuck Everlasting. It is by no means new (published in 1975). The first year I taught 5th grade at this school I was dreading teaching it. I hadn’t read it since I was in middle school and had no fond memories of it, to say the least. I was lobbying for pulling it the moment I heard it was in the curriculum.

Then I reread it. It’s fantastic. Probably always was. I don’t know what my problem was way back when.

Since I love it so much, I sell it well, if I do say so myself. We have interesting discussions, do thought-provoking assignments, and generally enjoy ourselves as we read and talk about these wonderful characters and writing.

Yet, each year I wonder if the book is going to start to lose its appeal. And, every year I have students, boys and girls, tell me how much they love the book. It continues to be a favorite when I survey the class at the end of the year. (We have one more book to read this year before I give my survey.) Here are a few things students (boys and girls) have written when I have asked them to reflect on their reading:

  • I think that this is the best book that I read this year.
  • I love the story and that makes me want to read more carefully.
  • I am doing a fantastic job. I got to read over and over to get things that didn’t make sense.
  • Probably my best book yet.
  • Overall this book is really one of my favorites.
  • I think this book has been better for me than some of the other books.
  • I have been enjoying this book a lot and have been reading over to make sure I know everything.

Maybe Tuck really is Everlasting.

(Photo by Jonas Lowgren used under Creative Commons license.)

No More Assuming

Posted: April 11, 2011 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

So, I’ve been thinking about what I assume my students know. In my class, I explain fairly early on that we won’t assume anything, because when we assume “it makes an ass out of you (u) and me.”  5th graders love that I say this; I mean I say the word “ass.” And, it’s not bad advice.

But, it seems I forgot it.

Here’s what happened. We were working on some writing and students had turned in first drafts. I, however, was not that impressed with said drafts. Many of them were riddled with basic spelling and punctuation errors. They were written on a laptop or iPad, so spelling errors should have been minimal. And, the “run-on royalty”, as I refer to those who seem unacquainted with the period, were in fine form.

Then I thought about it. Maybe they don’t know what a rough/first draft is?

So, I asked. “Has a teacher ever explained what a rough draft is and is not? I know I have not said what it is for me.”

“No.” (I am fully aware that this may or may not be true, but they clearly needed a refresher and knew it.)

So, I spent 15 minutes talking about the difference between a rough draft and a final draft. I made a list on the board of things that should and should not be in a rough/first draft (I never use the term “sloppy copy”). You might think this topic would not really grab people, but there was excellent attention and interest. This was news to people.

Here is a basic summary of what I notes about a first draft:

  • could have a few spelling or punctuation errors
  • first attempt at expressing your ideas
  • the best version of that first effort

Summary of a next draft:

  • again your best effort
  • new ideas after input from a peer or teacher reviewer

This seemed very reasonable to folks. Some of the best 15 minutes I have spent this year–just in time teaching.

How do I know it stuck with anyone?

Well, the next writing assignment we did I saw many of the chronic offenders ( in terms of run-ons, spelling errors, etc.) rereading, paying attention to spell check, adding punctuation, and generally handing in a draft that was in good enough condition that I could spend my editing time thinking about their ideas, not just their grammar.

No more assuming.


So, I’ve been thinking about conferences.

We had our “spring” parent-teacher conferences a few weeks ago. I say “spring” because it was weeks ago and the temperature is still in the 40’s this week, but I digress. One of the pieces of work I shared with parents was the most recent essay each of my students had written. This meant parents saw the planning sheet/graphic organizer that their student filled in, my comments on it, the first draft, my comments on that, and the final draft. All but the planning was completed in school. For most students we focused on the final draft and changes that were made between drafts.  For many students this essay was easily the best work to date.

On the Great Barrier Reef
For one student in particular in not only represented the best thing written this year, but exponential growth. This was not a “good for so-and-so” essay, it was good, period. The student wrote the essay in a reasonable amount of time and made significant edits after reading my comments. I was so proud for this student, and excited to share this with the parents. However, the parents were not that excited. They breezed on by it. I tried again to stress the independence, the change from earlier in the year, the original ideas. No luck.

To be fair, we had many things to discuss, but I couldn’t help feeling they missed a chance to tell their child how impressive this work was. That made me wonder if I had been too impressed. I started to second-guess my response. Was I wearing  my rose-colored glasses again?

I sent the essay to the student’s teacher from last year and the learning coordinator who also is familiar with the student’s work. This time, I got the reaction I wanted, or maybe somehow needed. They were impressed.

Sometimes we all need some validation.

(Creative Commons flickr photo by Paul Holloway)

So, I’ve been thinking about how my students organize information. We have practiced a couple of ways to gather information and then manipulated it this way and that. We have worked on this both formally and informally. So, I was interested to see what groups of students would do with this assignment:

Note: I had already directly presented (I know, I know, but sometimes we have to get in a little background quickly) some basic information about Ancient Egyptian dynasties and kingdoms.

During their group times, each student had to do some if not all of the reading and then bring notes to the group. I got to watch. I love watching my students really do stuff. It gives me insights into what strategies they are using, what they can take in from the text without me, how they can work together, who leads well, who leads aggressively, who follows well, and who doesn’t follow at all. These are pictures of what different groups did with their information:

This group started with post-its on a table

Then they moved to a wall to reorganize.

This group radiated ideas out from the center.

I especially like getting to see how each person deals with information and attempts to organize it. I know already that I have some straight-line-flow-chart thinkers. Everything is linear and connected at right angles for them. Then there are the categorizers who group, but don’t necessarily worry about the order of the details. And, there are always the web-makers who have trouble putting anything in only 1 category because the see all those connections.

I find it infinitely fascinating to watch so many different minds at work. While I watch (and advise, I’m not trying to torture folks), I get a peek inside those heads, even if the window is a little cloudy.

So, I’ve been thinking about how impressive 5th graders are sometimes.

I wrote about my new unit plan the day before yesterday; I know 2 posts in 3 days?! You can read about the whole thing here. But, the point of this post is that yesterday my students were writing “This I Believe” type pieces, based on the NPR show, as if they were a book character. We have read a number of books so far this year and students could choose any main character.

Usually I make very specific planning sheets and graphic organizers and structure the writing quite a bit. And, I did make a planning sheet for students. We also listened to a couple of podcasts of “real” essays too. But, really because the topics that students were writing about varied, it was hard to be as specific as I like to be.

We shared ideas. We started writing. I picked a character no one else was using so I could start an example piece as well. I wrote a little and then read what I had. It was ok and probably helped some folks.

But then, a student brought me her writing to look over. WOW! To say that it was good does not even begin to do it justice. It was crazy, super-duper good. I read it out loud and everyone just got quiet and listened with their mouths open.

She was writing as Philip in The Cay by Theodore Taylor. Her piece is below. (Note: the summary in the beginning of the 2nd paragraph is what happens in the book, the rest is all her added ideas and inferences about what the character would say.)


I believe that war is not the answer. This is my story. I used to think that war was a game. I played it with my friends. It didn’t matter who won because everything would turn out okay in the end. No one really got hurt or anything. Sure there were scrapes on the knee but that could be fixed with a band-aid. But I found out war wasn’t play, but affects lives. One of those lives was mine. 

One day war came to my island where I live. I was really excited to see the game I’ve always played in real live action and I thought  it would be so cool.  My mother disagreed. She hardly liked that my friends and I played war. She decided that we would take boat to Virginia, where I was born, and we would be safe. My dad had to stay and help with repairing boats for the army. It was already mad that I had to leave my dad. It got worse though. On the way there, we were hit by an enemy torpedo. Everything went black. I was blind. I sailed to an island with a man I didn’t know, only to have him die. That left me alone. War isolates people,not only physically, but mentally too.  I didn’t see half the terrors that a soldier sees. It scars people forever, like it did to me. This kind of scar can’t be fixed with a band-aid. This is how my life changed.

Now this may make you think that there is no hope. But there is. All of the things I just described could vanish completely. It’s not just that war is bad, but that peace is good. If we all advocate peace, not war, then we could have a better world. War is not the only option you know. Even the generals in the army say they don’t fight just to win, but so that there can be peace. I think that if we all work together, war will stop. I don’t just think-I believe.


Anyone else impressed?