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Assessing Student Writing

Happy Sunday!  I have spent the past hour or so reading through my students latest writing assessment pieces and thought I 'd share my process.

I really hate scoring student seems so unnatural.  I mean, I want to praise the effort of each and every one of my students.  Writing is HARD and I spend a great deal of the first half of the school year trying to convince my third graders that "ish" writing is okay.  "You are fledgling writers," I say "and I don't expect it to be perfect.  I only want your to do you best."  Then I break the news that they will receive a score on some of their writing, and the groans begin.  It is a necessary evil, but I have to be careful not to kill that love of writing that I've worked so hard to spark this year.

I have found that the trick is not to score or judge everything that students do in their writing.  They need lots of opportunities to "fool around" in their writing and to try things out risk-free, without me hovering over their shoulder.  That is where HUGE learning happens.   When I try out a new teaching strategy, I certainly don't want my principal watching me every step of the way.  I need time to try things out, fail, and then work out the kinks.  That is exactly what my students need!
I give them helpful feedback on their day-to-day writing......sometimes.....if they really want/need it.  They do tons of sharing with their peers, which I feel is really important.  But I only formally assess every few weeks.  I do this by administering an "on-demand" writing prompt. 

I choose an open-ended generic topic that will engage all of my students.  If we are working on personal narratives, it is narrative prompt, if we're working on essay, its an essay prompt, etc.  I introduce the topic, we talk a bit about it and then they have one hour to "show me what they've got."  I tell them that this is their opportunity to really shine and to use all of the writing strategies they have learned over the past several weeks.

Last year, I put together a whole pack of on-demand prompts, which includes several narrative, opinion and informational topics.   Every 2-3 weeks, I choose one to assess my students.  The assessment "booklet" that I put together for each student includes a cover page with a editing/revision checklist, a planning page and drafting paper.  It's kind of like those "blue books" you'd get in college when you had an essay question. Here is a sample of the pages in the booklet:

I like to run the booklets on different colored paper each time I assess, which makes it easy for me to discern (at a glance) when the prompt was given.  If you are interested, you can purchase the on-demand prompts at my TpT store:

I then score the prompts using a rubric.  I introduce students to the rubric at the beginning of the unit we are working on, so they know exactly what is expected.  I have an assessment toolkit for both third and fourth grade, which includes rubrics for all CCSS writing genres (narrative, opinion and informational).

The cover page of their assessment booklet includes a space for me to write their score and to give them feedback.  I usually give each student a star and a wish.  When I return the prompt to them, they look at their score and the feedback given, record it on a data page in their data notebooks and write a goal for next time (based upon the feedback that I gave them on the prompt).  It is important to be prompt in scoring and returning these to students, so that they can immediately begin to implement the suggested feedback into their writing.  Here is the data sheet they use for recording their score (also available in the On-Demand Writing Assessments pack):

Students have learned to like not hate this assessment process.  They look forward to getting some critique about their writing.....they are always excited to see their score and the feedback given.  More importantly, I see a great improvement in their writing....they really work hard to do better each time and implement the suggestions given.  It also makes things much easier when it comes time for parent teacher conferences and report cards.....takes all the guess work right out of it!

I save all of their on-demand prompt assessments until the end of each unit.  At that time, students go through all of their writing, reflect on their progress and put together a "portfolio" to take home and share with their families, which includes the prompts, data sheets, their draft writing and polished pieces.  Nice!

If you have any questions about this process, please don't hesitate to ask.  How do you assess student writing...I would love to hear from you!  Thanks again for dropping by today!  I will leave you with a brand new FREEBIE that I just posted last week....writing menus for your students!  Enjoy!

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Kathy Olenczuk


Descriptive Writing

I happily admit that writing is my favorite subject to teach.  Unfortunately it is often the least favorite time of day for many students.  I find this so discouraging, because I love to write and I really want my students to enjoy it too!  That is why one of my missions in life is to find ways to make students like writing!

We are currently writing personal narratives in third grade.  My students start the year with many skills already in place.  They have learned the basic conventions of writing and they can write a story with a beginning, middle and ending.  The most common missing link in their writing seems to be adding enough detail to make their story clear and interesting for the reader.  In other words, they tell the beginning, middle and ending...but pretty much that's it!

So we spend a lot of time learning strategies for adding details.  Too often teachers tell their students that they "need more details" but neglect to give solid lessons on "how" to do that.  Students tend to equate "more details" to just "more".  Then you get stories that just ramble on endlessly without much focus on the topic or "heart" of the story.  The common core has given us some guidelines to help students to add meaningful detail to their writing through the language that they have used in the standards.

Writing standard 3 for third grade states that students use dialogue and descriptions of actions, thoughts, and feelings to develop experiences and events or show the response of characters to situations.  This is a great start to helping students to add the right details to their writing.

I find the following things to be key in writing a detailed narrative:


Too often you see students choosing topics that are way too large and encompassing.  Topics like "My Trip to Disney" are so large that students can only tell about the events and not many details.  These types of stories turn into boring retellings of what happened first, next, next, next, then, then....and on and on!  You know what I'm talking about....these are torturous to read!  LOL!  Teaching students how to choose tiny moment topics will lead to stories that can be enriched with lots and lots of juicy details.  Instead of "My Trip to Disney", a better topic might be "Taking Off On Space Mountain", which lends itself to a great story filled with wonderful and exciting details about riding the dark and scary rollercoaster!

Here's a little FREEBIE to help your students choose seed ideas (It is 2 pages from my new mini-unit on Descriptive Writing.


During reader's workshop, we are always getting students to think about the "author's message" or the heart of the story.  What lesson did we learn from the book?  When we ask students to write their own personal narratives, we often neglect to ask them to include an author's message.  Without this component, their stories often lack focus and direction.  When planning their story (I love using a story mountain), students should begin with a seed topic that also has a lesson or message to be learned.  They should reflect on why the story is important to them and what will others learn from their story.  I like to call it "the heart" of their story.   They can then place focus on the most important part or parts of their story and add details to the parts of the story that highlight the message they want to convey.


Third graders are often shocked when I tell them that they will write and re-write their stories several times before they are done with it.  Coming from first and second grade they haven't quite grasped the idea behind the writing process yet.  They think that editing and revision are basically the same thing.  They reality is that the details and descriptions in a story often get added on during the revision stage of writing.  First draft writing is quick and tells the story without too much detail.  I have students write many "first draft" narratives before they have to pick one that they'd like to revise.  It is during this revision stage that I spend several lessons teaching strategies for adding more details to their writing.  They then go back into that story they picked and "try out" each strategy by adding details here and there to make their story better.  They are always pleasantly surprised by the great changes they see in their story after they have revised by adding more detail.

Some of the strategies for adding more details that I like to teach:

-Adding sensory details to help the reader experience the story with all five senses.
-Telling the internal story:  What were the characters thinking and feeling?
-Describing the action in the story.
-Sprinkling in dialogue.
-Repeating a word to emphasize and idea or action.
-Include a detailed description...of a person, place or thing.

When students are given the tools they need to improve their writing...they start to enjoy it more!  They know what to do and they really get into it. 

If have put together a mini-unit on Detailed and Descriptive Writing, which includes lessons on these strategies and more.  I would love to give it away to a few of my followers!  If you are interested, in the comment section below please leave your email address and share a little writing tip that you think we might find helpful in our writing instruction.  I will choose at least three "winners".

Thank you for stopping by today....I hope you have a wonderful week!


Making Denim Chair Pockets

Hello Friends,

I have been busy for a couple of days making brand new chair pockets for my students!  I've had tables in my classroom for the past 7-8 years.  When I got my first set of round tables, I made these awesome denim chair pockets to give students a bit of personal storage space right on the backs of their chairs.  They have finally started to wear out and I have made brand new ones to replace them.  I know many of you use tables in your classrooms and go out and buy those store-made chair pockets that wear out after one year.  So.....I thought I would share my very economical and very durable "recipe" for homemade chair pockets.  You will need a sewing machine for this project!

The first thing you will need is some very sturdy denim fabric.   Each one requires 1/2 yard of fabric, so you will need 15 square yards to make 30 chair pockets.  If purchased 18 yards of heavy weight denim on Amazon for $82.  That is a great deal!!

Your bolt of fabric will be exactly 3 feet (36 inches tall).  Begin by rolling out the bolt of fabric on the floor in as long a strip as possible in the space that you have.
You will measure and mark your fabric in 18 inch strips, as shown in the picture above.  I used a tape measure and a piece of cardboard as a straight edge.  I marked the fabric using a Sharpie marker.

Next, cut out the strips.  Each strip is double-sided with a fold on the bottom.

Now you are ready to start sewing.   I used navy blue took a whole spool for the project.  The first step is to sew down both ends to make a finished look on the bottom of the bags.
Then you will sew the sides, keeping the bag inside out.
What you now have is a "pillowcase" that is turned inside out.  You will carefully flip the top down half-way to make a pocket.
The final step, and most important, is to reinforce the bottom corners with a triple or quadruple stitch up and down.  This will keep the inside pocket from sagging downward when you put lots of heavy stuff in there!  You do this by stitching together the inside and outside bottom corners of the bag right along the seams.
You now have a completed chair pocket which will fit perfectly on most standard sized student chairs.  If you want to get really fancy, you can sew in a piece of elastic at the top so that it makes a draw-string top.  My last chair pockets had this feature and I found that it was unnecessary and not worth the extra work.

This is a picture of how they look on the back of the chairs:
Please let me know if you have any questions!  Have fun making your own chair pockets!  If you use a heavy weight denim (12-14 oz.) these will last years and years!

Love and peace,

Fractions Vocabulary and FREEBIES

Teacher inquiry is something that teachers are always doing throughout their teaching careers.  It is also known as action research.  We get a "wondering" and we turn our wondering into a question and try something new with our students to answer that question.  It is something that all good teachers are constantly doing in their classrooms to improve the learning of their students.  I happen to be doing some action research as part of an assignment I am doing for my Galileo Leadership Consortium.

I am exploring "academic vocabulary" as part of my inquiry project.  My focus is on math vocabulary, and even more specifically, the vocabulary words associated with fractions.  I want to find out the effect that daily, focused vocabulary instruction will have upon my students understanding of the words and their conceptual understanding of fractions.  Before I began, I had to determine what "focused vocabulary instruction" would look like in MY classroom with MY students.   All of my research led me to Robert Marzano's work with vocabulary instruction.  He has developed a systemic approach to introducing new vocabulary that works well with all ages of students.  This is the process (in a nutshell):
  1. Introduce the word (brief explanation, including examples and modeling by teacher)
  2. Students restate the description, explanation, examples in their own words (preferably in a vocabulary notebook)
  3. Students construct a picture, symbol or other non-linguistic representation (also done in their vocab notebook)
  4. Engage students in activities that help them to further their understanding of the words
  5. Students have regular opportunities to discuss the words
  6. Students play games with the words
I put together a vocabulary notebook for my students to record their vocabulary words and record their thinking about the words.  You can download the page HERE for free.

 Students keep their notebooks with them throughout our math period and are welcome to add-on or revise their thinking at any time, as their understanding of the concepts further develop.

Throughout the week, I give students lots of opportunities to discuss and "play" with the words, by asking open-ended, guided-inquiry questions.  I have found that through these discussions and activities, the students often have new insights about the words.  I choose word and activities that coincide with the lessons that I plan to teach that week.

Here are some worksheets I have prepared to further their thinking about our fraction words.  You may download these HERE and HERE.  Concept Wheels and Analogy activities are among our favorites!


 I have also made a vocabulary word wall, using the free word wall cards from HERE  and vocabulary flash cards, which we use for various games (such as Vocabulary Pictionary and Word Sorting).  You can download them for free HERE.

Here is a Scoot Game that I created to help students to further explore the idea of "One Whole Unit" and "Fractions Greater Than 1."  Download the 24 Cards and Answer Sheet HERE.

I am learning so much about how to teach vocabulary!  The students love these activities and are learning so much.  I have come to think about the vocabulary words as the "table legs" of our conceptual understanding.  The words of  "fractions" are the foundation for which students will deepen their learning.....and their learning has deepened!!  Students are talking the talk and walking the walk.  They use the words in their discussions and in their math work, and they can use the words in a variety of contexts. 

This has been such a huge "a-ha" for me that I will begin incorporate these techniques into all areas of our curriculum.  I know that you are thinking....when, when, when can I fit this in with everything else that I have to teach???!!!  I spend only an additional 15 minutes on these activities...and I don't necessarily do it every day.  But I've found that it blends right in with our daily lessons, so its not really "extra time".  Also, since this focused vocabulary instruction has given students a strong conceptual understanding, we actually spend less time during our regular lessons dealing with confusions and misunderstandings.  Trust me...even if it takes a bit of extra is well worth it.  Marzano has been saying it for years....but I had to see for myself!! 

I hope you give this a try in your classroom.  I will continue to post any new vocabulary activities that I create for my students, so that you can try this too, without reinventing the wheel. I suggest trying this method with just one unit in your math (or other subject) curriculum and then add on a little at a time.  

If you are interested in exploring direction instruction of vocabulary instruction, here are some resources that you will find very, very helpful:

Love and peace,

Help for Struggling Writers

We recently completed our unit on Essay Writing, and for the most part it was successful!   The objective of this unit was for students to understand and use a 4-paragraph organizational structure to support their opinion on a "big idea."  You know....Common Core stuff.

I also wanted students to use this structure to write several essays, so that they had enough practice to become fluent essay writers.  This happened....with about 98% of my third graders.

The "essay" organizational structure is a big one and students will be assessed on their ability to use this structure over and over again throughout their school career.  By "essay organizational structure" I am talking about "Intro Paragraph - Supporting Paragraph - Supporting Paragraph - Conclusion".  They NEED to be able to do this, without being told, EVERY time they put pencil to paper to write on a prompted topic.  I know I am over-simplifying a bit, but the truth is...if they can do this, they have won half the battle. 

In our district their first big writing assessment happens in fourth grade (the state writing assessment).  Our students flop on this year after year, and of course, I blame myself personally for this failure since I was their third grade teacher. So for the past two years, I have worked really hard to find ways to teach this skill in a way that students understand and can put into practice.  "Chunking" my instruction has been extremely helpful in teaching how to write an organized essay.  I put together these graphic organizers for the specific purpose of showing students how to write an essay, bit by bit.

As I stated, this worked GREAT for most of my students!


I had about 3 kiddos that just didn't get all.  I worked with them rigorously throughout the unit, conferring and one-on-one-ing like crazy with these little ones, but they still didn't get it.  This factoid left me with a giant pit in my stomach.  If you are like me, your failures are way more shiny than your successes.  I knew I needed to do something for these struggling writers.

I decided to come up with an intervention plan for these students to help bring them up to speed on organizing an essay.  I put together a very simple packet, that they now work on as part of their nightly homework.  I had a conference with the parents of these students, and those parents enthusiastically agreed to help and support their child with this initiative.  However, it could also be done during the school day, since it is pretty simple.

Students begin the week by receiving a prompted topic and then completing a very basic graphic organizer to organize their ideas around the topic.

Then, they spend one (or more if needed) day writing each part of the essay:  the introduction paragraph, two supporting paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph.

These reference sheets help them to see the "big" picture of their essay and gives them some sentence starters for each section (since I have found that my struggling writers don't know how to start).

After they write out each section, they write out the whole thing on notebook paper and spend some time checking over their work using a checklist:

At that point, they could (or not) write out their essay in a final copy format.

The next week....wash.....rinse.......repeat.  Students work with a new topic each week.  This repetition has really helped my struggling writers to understand the organizational structure of an essay, while also giving them some much needed practice with their overall writing skills.   They are actually beginning to get it and they have definitely shown improvement in their writing.

Improved learning....that is truly the important thing...and why I do what I do!!


This has also given me some"evidence" to add to my teacher data notebook.  Let's face it...when your principal asks you during your post-evaluation chat, "So, what did you do when they didn't get it?"  You need to have your butt covered!!  I will have a whole lot of evidence to show that I responded to my struggling writers with an effective intervention!!

If you are looking for an intervention program for your writers who just don't get how to organize and write an opinion may want to check it out.  It includes 18 different writing prompts with graphic organizers (enough to last the whole year if needed).

I also created one for informational writing.  They are both available in a bundle.

Love and peace,