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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


A Literature Notebook for Common Core and a FREEBIE

Oh me, oh my!  How to teach those darn common core "Reading Literature" standards?  They are so hard, aren't they?  I know it is supposed to be a good thing to teach elementary kids to "do" close reading, but it is really challenging as a teacher.

I decided to start with an "interactive" notebook to introduce the standards to my students and to put the vocab (central message, key details, character motivations, literal, non-literal, etc) into their little ears.  I created notebook pages that simply explain each of the standards and the vocabulary necessary to understand the standards.  Some of them I had to break into several notebook pages...because some of those things encompass several skills.  Then I added a partner page where we can try out the strategy together, using a read-aloud.  Here is an example of the notebook pages we added for "Text-Based Questions" (R.L. 3.1).

When we did these pages, I used the book The Rough Face Girl by Rafe Martin.  (I wish I was one of those bloggers who remembered to take photos of the examples we did in class, but I'm not that organized...maybe someday....sigh).  The book worked great for talking about literal vs. non-literal questions.  On the "Try It" page I wrote a non-literal question from the book for the kiddos to answer and provide "text-based evidence".

Of course they got the idea right away!  NOT!  Actually they need a lot of practice answering those non-literal questions and providing evidence to support their claims (yikes).  Soooo.....I created some additional graphic organizer pages that could be used for more practice.  The great thing is that these organizers can be used with any book and can be used to revisit the skill/strategy throughout the school year.  Of course....your kids will probably get it the FIRST TIME so you won't need these..right?  LOL!

Here is an example of the graphic organizers that go with the notebook pages shown above related to Text-Based Questions (R.L. 3.1).  Click HERE to download them for FREE! 

As I introduce each of these standards I am mostly using folktales, fables and myths as the mentor texts/read-alouds, since that is the type of text specifically referred to in the Common Core.  We have read several different versions of Cinderella:

And Red Riding Hood

Some others we've read:

 Not so sure about Greek Mythology and third graders (pretty scary stuff and a bit riské).  But if common core says its okay...well, it must be then, right?

My Reading Literature Reference Notebook PLUS (including the graphic organizers) is available in my TpT store  It is a work in progress, and will be updated as I use my third graders as guinea pigs!

Thank you for stopping by....I would love to hear how you are addressing the RL standards!  Happy Weekend!


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,

A Daily Schedule that Works!

I am beginning to look ahead to a new school year....who isn't, right?

It seems like we have more "stuff" to teach than ever before and we are led to believe that EVERY subject is the MOST IMPORTANT subject.  But let's face it, something's got to give.....there is just not enough hours in the day!  So this is the dilemma I am currently to fit (mostly) everything in AND do justice to each of the very important concepts that must be learned in a school year.

When I taught first grade, I used the Daily 5 for literacy and I really liked it.  However, with third grade I have found that I really like the Reader's Workshop model much better, especially considering the rigor of the Common Core (ugh) and the amount of time students need to be reading grade-level text to keep up with this rigor.  Also, juggling the Daily 5 was a struggle (for me, anyhow).  I'd rather keep things more simple.  However, I do miss having all that time to gather small groups and I like the "student choice" component of Daily 5. is my first attempt at a daily schedule that "fits it all in" and adds a bit of student choice and flex time for me to work with students one-on-one and in small groups (or to just get myself organized!).  Notice that I have slightly different versions of the schedule on Monday & Friday.

 This weekly/daily schedule has added-in time for Language and Grammar practice (which I tried to squeeze in with Writer's Workshop last year and always fell off the agenda), and Words Their Way (doing instead of more traditional spelling program since I've had quite a few students recently with phonemic awareness issues).  It has also given us two hour per week of "student choice" time a.k.a. teacher flex time.  I will use this time to work with students independently or in small groups and students will have some meaningful choices to further their learning in all subjects.  The only thing that worries me a bit is having only 30 minutes for Writer's Worskhop/3 days per week.  However, I think that my Language lessons may take less time and I can tack the extra onto our W.W. and the two hours per week of student choice can and will be used for writing.  I haven't gotten that far in my planning, but here are some of the choices that I envision:
  • Make-up Work
  • Word Work (Words Their Way)
  • Buddy Reading
  • Independent Reading/Reading Response
  • Writing (choice)
  • Math Games
  • Technology (Laptop or Ipad)
  • Independent Project (science or social studies)
  • Time with Teacher
Of course, I will have to include an "accountability factor" for all of that student choice time....including sharing out and perhaps a learning log, but haven't tackled that yet!

I'm all over the internet today looking for more ideas.  I would love yours!

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,