The Art of Assessment

In schools across the country and probably across the world, September means assessments.  We give all kinds of assessments to get to know our students, or should I say to get to know their academic strengths and weaknesses.  I don’t think assessments have anything to do with getting to know our students.  We determine who is high, medium, and low; who succumbed to “The Summer Slide,” and who excelled without our teaching.  We do this in the grand name of progress.  We pore over every score.  Who is proficient and fluent?  Who is struggling and not retaining the concepts and skills we’ve taught? But what do those numbers and labels that we diligently collect really tell us?  What do we truly understand about the information we gathered?  And how does that data affect our instruction?

As an elementary school learning specialist, I am keenly aware of these questions because I am not sure that copious amounts of data are changing or improving our teaching.  I think the majority of teachers – whether in public, charter, or private schools – revert to the mean.  By which I mean, they revert to what they know: they teach to the middle, often leaving behind the students with weaker skills and also boring to tears the students who have surpassed their grade-level standards.

I am sure teachers mean no harm.  They just lack the awareness and knowledge of how to reach all students no matter their skill level.  Many think you need specialized training and yes, that might be very beneficial, but what teachers really need to reach students is simple: the ability to be present and listen – the ability to tune out the educational jargon and tune into the little scholars in front of them.  All they have do is ask…

  • What does this child need?
  • What is she telling me?
  • What can I do to build her knowledge, her confidence, her motivation, and her curiosity?
  • How can I create a classroom experience that will connect my students to each other and to big ideas too?

This past week, I came across a common assessment dilemma.  A new teacher came to me with a problem.  One of her young students did poorly on a sight-word spelling assessment, scoring 2 out of 27.  I asked to see the assessment. 

            The teacher responded, “You want to see the hard copy?”  And I wondered about her hesitancy until she handed me the student’s paper.  Then my suspicions were confirmed.  The student had left almost all of the test blank.

             I asked the teacher, “What happened here?  Why did she leave all these answers blank?” 

            The teacher replied,  “I don’t know. It looked like she was writing?” 

            “Didn’t you walk around the room and check to see if everyone was following along?”  I thought to myself, knowing full-well the answer. 

            The teacher responded, “I don’t think it’s my job to constantly watch over them.  I can’t stand over all of them all the time!” 

            I took a deep breath and calmly said, “That’s not what I am suggesting.  When I had my own classroom, I would walk around the classroom, so I could assess in the moment what each student was doing and what they may need assistance with.”

            She was silent.  Then I quietly asked to reassess the student the following day. 

            The teacher asked me if that was fair. 

            I asked her, “What is the point of the assessment?” 

            She answered, “To find out if they know how to spell grade-level sight words.” 

            I nodded, “Right, so do we understand what this student knows?” 

            The teacher shook her head. 

            Then I smiled and said, “Then I will need to reassess her.”

            The next morning, I sat in our sun-filled school library in the presence of a little girl with dark braids and big brown eyes.  She was eager and happy to sit with me.  I explained that I would be giving her the spelling assessment again.  Her bright eyes grew even larger.  I told her that she should sound out the words even if she was unsure how to spell them.  I told her to think carefully, go slowly, and try her best to show me what she knows about all the words I was going to read.   She took up her pencil and began.  I started to see what she knew.  Not all the words were correct, but she spelled out each word carefully.  Then I asked her why she had left so many blanks on the original assessment.

            She said wisely, “I don’t like competitions.” I tried hard not to laugh.

“I don’t like to spell in front of people.” she added.

            I asked her, “Were you nervous about getting the words wrong?” 

            “Yes,” she nodded vigorously.

When she was done, I showed her all the words she knew, and we looked at the ones she did not yet know how to spell.  Many of the ones she missed, she was able to correct on her own. I gave her a lot of praise and commended her for trying and really thinking about how each word was spelled.  This first grader, who originally scored 2/27, had now scored 21/27, given a second chance.

Now, why is that?  Did she suddenly remember the sight words?  Or is it more about confidence and performance?  Does this student need more sight word drills, or does she need more encouragement?  I guess it is obvious where I am going with this line of questioning.  I know that assessments are useful, but if teachers are not present to their students, then the assessments can become meaningless.  I humbly suggest five meaningful and mindful ways teachers can approach assessing their students:

  • Remain present and open to possibility.
  • Listen with intensity.
  • Give specific and positive feedback.
  • Find time throughout the day to encourage and motivate.
  • Keep yourself and your students curious.

Wildflower Power

We are coming upon the last days of summer.  For me, there is something bittersweet about that.  I find myself holding on to the warm golden promise of summer.  I don’t want it to end.  No matter, how much I enjoy the fall, summer is a time that signals renewal and hope.  There is so much I wanted to accomplish, so much joy I wanted to breathe in and make last. I don’t want that feeling to end.  I need to find a way to sustain summer’s promise.  I find it in the fields of wildflowers that I’ve encountered.  I remember a poem I wrote many years ago.   I keep reflecting on the power of that wild beauty.  Something colorful and unexpected, something to surprise and comfort the faithful.

Wildflowers

I come upon a field of wildflowers -
Poppies, cornflowers, Queen Anne’s Lace -
I walk across the field
Almost on tiptoe so as not to 
Disturb a single petal.
I capture with my camera
Oranges and yellows,
The surprise of blue, the blush of pink.
As I travel the meadow.
I find a bunch of wild daisies -
“He loves me, he loves me not,”
I say to myself and shrug.
I wonder where that game began.
Each daisy petal holds a fortune,
Which way will it end?
I take hold of its bright face,
Count each white petal,
Lucky 13 – I take a chance.
He loves me, he loves me not -
He loves me, he loves me not -
Until the last petal is plucked:
He loves me!
I look down at the sad yellow center,
The white petals, like torn paper
Fall from my hand.


I came across a wonderful graphic book for young readers by Ricardo Liniers Siri called Wildflowers.  It is an imaginative journey through island jungle by three heroic sisters.  Liniers based the story on his three daughters’ creative play.  It is a pure celebration of how creativity and sisterhood can save the day!  Liniers notes that Tom Petty’s song, “Wildflowers,” served as an inspiration.  I had not heard of Petty’s song before, so I took a listen and began to weep.  What simple beauty!

You belong among the wildflowers

You belong somewhere close to me

Far away from your trouble and worries

You belong somewhere you feel free

You belong somewhere you feel free

What a powerful message for young readers!  Historically, I have not been a huge fan of graphic books/novels, but that it not to say that I have not found pure genius in some of them.  Graphic books for young readers seem to be a perfect way to motivate and engage children.  The combination of picture and text support fluency and comprehension.  I know our young K-3 readers gravitate to graphic books, as do our older elementary readers.  The vivid descriptions that I enjoy as I read are encoded in a different way in graphic books.  Here, the pictures serve as description and the readers must use their growing inferring skills.  The rich visuals beckon children to question, wonder, and explore. Thank you, Liniers and Toon Books, for making me a fan!

More by Liniers

Macanudo

Good Night, Planet

The Big Wet Balloons

Written and Drawn by Henrietta

Classic Graphic Books for Young Readers

Bad Kitty by Nick Bruel

Baby Mouse by Jennifer L. Holm

Little Robot by Ben Hatke

Lunch Lady by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

My Weird School by Dan Gutman

Owly by Andy Runyon

Week on the Water

Something about water that is so pure and calming whether it’s in the form of river, pond, lake, waterfall, or ocean.  The flow of water fills me with possibility.  Water is smooth and easy.  It can carry itself anywhere.  It is versatile and resilient.  And water is strong.  It can sweep you away and wear great rocks smooth.  Water is a force to be reckoned with.  I try, in my daily life, to emulate the qualities of water. I want to adopt its beauty, tenacity and strength.  I want to achieve its clarity and purpose.

Being close to water always puts me at ease and allows me to center myself.  Whatever trouble I face or obstacles I encounter has always been set right with time spent by the water.  August calls me to come to the water, and so I obey.    Salt water and sand – just what I need to slow down, reflect, and write. I take my camera along to record the images that stand out to me.

Golden


Brave children stand 
At the edge of the sea,
While watchful waves
Tug at their tender feet.

Come in, come in
The wind whispers,
But the children run,
Scattering shells across the sand.

Their laughter lifts in to the air,
Bounces on the shimmering sea,
The roar of the waves
Always beckoning.

Closer the children creep,
Tan limbs in pools of white foam,
Ready, watching for
That next wave.

Scooping up sea glass,
Small shells, smooth stones,
The children splash,
Dancing with the sea.

As giant clouds climb
Over the slate-blue horizon
Like dangerous pirates
Waiting to snatch their treasure.

Come away, come away 
To a distant shore,
While the sun sinks in the western sky
Washing everything with gold.

Book Lists: Seven by the Sea

Picture Books:

  1. Come Away from the Water, Shirley by John Burningham
  2. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  3. Hello Ocean by Pamm Munoz
  4. Home for Hermit Crab by Eric Carl
  5. Mister Sea Horse by Eric Carl
  6. Stella, Star of the Sea by Mary-Louise Gay
  7. Wave by Suzy Lee

Middle Grade Novels:

  1. A Swirl of Ocean by Melissa Sarno
  2. Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk
  3. Fish Girl by David Weisner and Donna Jo Napoli
  4. They Eyes of the Amaryllis by Natalie Babbitt
  5. The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler
  6. The Wanderer by Sharon Creech
  7. Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm

Books for Adults:

  1. Gift of Sea by Anne Morrow Lindberg
  2. Summer Sisters by Judy Blume
  3. The Hungry Ocean by Linda Greenlaw
  4. The Lobster Chronicles: Life on a Very Small Island by Linda Greenlaw
  5. The Silent World:  A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure by Jacques-Yves Coustea
  6. The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
  7. Turtle Summer: A Journal for My Daughter by Mary Alice Monroe

Learn Something

This summer, I have been concentrating on healing my body and spirit, which has entailed a lot of physical therapy and many walks in gardens and parks. Usually, I read a lot during the summer but this summer I have only read a couple of books so far.  I decided to jump-start my reading by turning to a classic,  The Once and Future King by T.H. White.  I knew of the legend of King Arthur mainly from the Disney animated film, The Sword in the Stone.  I loved that story because it was filled with hope, faith, and possibility.  It helped me to become braver and more courageous. It gave me hope that even a small person could grow into someone who could right wrongs and defeat evil.  As an anxious, insecure child, this legend especially appealed to me.

In early June, I was asked to find a quote about learning as part of a farewell gift for a retiring colleague.  I did what many people do these days, I Googled it. And that’s when I came across T.H. White’s insightful observation about learning via Merlin’s advice to young Arthur, who was upset that his foster brother, Kay, was becoming a knight and he would only be allowed to be Kay’s squire. Merlin offers this sage advice:

The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then – to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.  Look what a lot of things where are to learn.”

T.H. White,  The Once and Future King, Chapter 21.

Throughout my life, I have found this advice to ring true.  Whenever I faced challenges or needed to overcome obstacles, learning something, was the thing that pulled me through and made me feel confident.  I gained knowledge, and I felt like I had changed for the better somehow.  The Once and Future King is a very long story, six hundred thirty-nine pages, to be exact.  It is not exactly easy reading, so I decided to listen to an audio version.  Over and over again, I was amazed by White’s writing skill and keen insights.  I find myself asking, “ How did he do that?  How does he know all that in-depth information about falconry and trees; badgers and hedgehogs; snakes and giants? He makes writing seem so effortless, and he has so much to say that could guide adolescents and adults.  He, indeed, is Merlyn, and we can learn so much from his words.

In the Book of Merlyn, White explains, “Nobody can be saved from anything, unless they save themselves. It is hopeless doing things for people – it is often very dangerous to do things at all – and the only thing worth doing for the race is to increase its stock of ideas. Then, if you make available a larger stock, people are at liberty to help themselves from out of it. By this process the means of improvement is offered, to be accepted or rejected freely, and there is a faint hope of progress in the course of millennia. Such is the business of the philosopher, to open new ideas. It is not his business to impose them on people” I connect strongly with this view: ideas are what make us human and seeking new ideas make us stronger and make our journey in this world interesting and worthwhile.

Throughout my many years of teaching, I made sure that I found new things to learn so that I would never forget the feelings my novice students experienced.  Adopting the mindset of a beginner helped me truly understand the struggles my students encountered.  I believe that made me better able to connect with them and teach them effectively.  When I was teaching 2nd grade, I decided to take a drawing class at the Parson’s School of Design in New York City.  It was a big leap for me, but I wanted to learn how to draw realistically, and I wanted to face a challenge.  The classes were three hours long.  Three hours of sitting, observing, and drawing. It entailed a tremendous amount of concentration.  After my first forty-five minutes of sitting, I began to look around the room,  I stared out the window, I fidgeted in my seat, I got up to go to the ladies room.  I took my time.  I wandered.  I smiled to myself.  “This is what my students’ feel. What can I do to make them be able to concentrate longer and learn more deeply?”

When I taught 3rd grade, I learned Krav Maga,  an Israeli Martial Arts. I am not naturally athletic, and this class called for great physical exertion.  I did not back down.  I studied for three years and was preparing for my brown belt test before a back injury put me on the sidelines. Throughout my martial arts training, ,y students loved to see me demonstrate self-defense techniques and cheered me on. I think they felt more empowered my seeing their teacher take greater and greater risks. I hope I demonstrated to them that learning is hard and that is good – it makes you strong it helps to persevere.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

As a learning specialist, who has supported students with multiple learning differences, I know that motivating them to keep learning is key. No matter how daunting the task of learning is, it is the only remedy for sadness, ignorance, and a multitude of what ails the world. And of course, books provide the source of much learning. Through books we can have a wide array of experiences. Through books, we can be exposed to all kinds of ideas. Through books, we can become who we want to be.

Poetry Found!

I have regularly used found poetry to introduce children to the wonders of verse.  Using printed text from which to construct a poem gives the young poet a firm foundation on which to build.  It eliminates the fearful and daunting blank page.  Found poetry is created by selecting and arranging words in order from previously constructed text.  The texts can be taken from a variety of sources: ones’ own writing; favorite poems; literacy passages; non-fiction essays; environmental texts.  This variety allows for a wide-range of experimentation.

Found poem from Stuart Little by E.B. White, page 41

Sometimes, found poems can be created by taking words and phrases from two different poems.  Working in pairs, students read and critique two poems written about the same subject.  Then they play with the lines of the two poems to create a new poem.   I encourage the students to play with both poems.  Eventually, they  cut and paste lines from each poem to make their own poem.  They do not need to use all the lines of poetry in their new poems and they may add their own words to enhance meaning. Their new poems, if presented in any form, must acknowledge the fact that it is a creation made from the work of the original poets.

Poems arranged on a staircase is another adaptation of found poetry, which I believe to be very effective in having students play and experiment with words.  In this activity, students find a phrase of group of words that are personally important to them.  They can also write their own phrase to express their feelings.  These  phrases are then written on sentence strips  and gathered together.  The whole group decides how to construct the phrases to make a meaningful poem.  Then the found poem is either posted on the hall for all to see or each line is mounted to the back of each step on a hallway staircase.  I love this presentation because as students walk into school, they are greeted by their class found poem. What an inspiring way to start the day!

Poetry Assemblages, using found words and objects, are also an effective way to  stimulate creativity.  I ask students  to bring in ten small objects or pictures of objects and ten words that are personally important to them.  These objects need to be things that can be used in a collage or assemblage so they cannot be of great monetary value.  I introduce the students to the work of artist, Robert Rauschenberg, and then ask them to use their objects and words to create a work of art. 

Rauschenberg Poetry Assemblages, Grade 4

For older elementary and middle school students, blackout poems extend the experience of constructing found poems.  Blackout poems are created when the poet uses a black marker to ink out words of selected text, which then form a new message in verse.  Many blackout poems create actual images on the printed page of text blending the notion of art and poetry. The poems can be linked to literature or poetry that the student are currently studying, which give them a deeper understanding of how authors construct meaning.

This week, I came across a beautiful little book of found poems called This Poem is a Nest by Irene Latham.  These found poems, which Latham calls “nestlings,” all come from her original prose poems.  Latham introduces her method of found poetry sayings: “One day when I was watching robins build a nest, it occurred to me that poems are nests – and we poets spend much of our time nest-building.  We gather words, ideas, and dreams, and then we set about weaving, arranging, and structuring.” 

I have regularly used found poetry to introduce children to the wonders of verse.  Using printed text from which to construct a poem gives the young poet a firm foundation on which to build.  It eliminates the fearful and daunting blank page.

I love this description of her poetic process.  To me, it is the perfect definition of what poets do.  I too am partial to bird watching.  I love to linger by my window and watch as cardinals and blue jays gather seeds, and sparrows and chickadees bob up and down selecting reeds, stick, and grasses for their nests.  I am heartened by the metaphor of a poem as a nest – a soft, warm, safe place to rest my words.

Kitchen Literacy: Constructing Japanese Fruit Sandos

It was February turning to March and the bright and motivated 5th grader, Hadley, whom I have been teaching privately for the last three years suddenly became dull and bored.  Nothing could spark her interest.  Her normal bookworm self was now not interested in any book in any genre.  Her penchant for writing was also gone. All her academic energy and engagement was zapped.  Week after week this winter, I stared a cross my screen into the face of a girl who did not want to do a single thing except quietly stare at me and say, “No.”  So, I got out my secret weapon, poetry, and that worked for a while.  She created a wonderful assortment of poems and made a digital book.  Then one day, I introduced another poem and that dull stare came back onto her face.  She was listless, passively sitting, responding to me with one-word answers. I knew I had to figure out another idea but what? We normally read a short nonfiction current event passage each week to gain insights into the world around us and to get ideas about what we might want to read, writer, or research next. I timidly suggested we read a nonfiction article I found about Japanese Fruit Sandos (sandwiches). Food!  I often resort to poetry and food to engage students and usually it works! It did this time too!

I went to my trusted nonfiction resource, Newsela, and found an article in the Arts section titled, “Sweeten Your Springtime with Japanese Fruit Sandos.” I had never heard of fruit sandwiches before.  They were so surprising and beautiful  that I thought they might be just the idea to stir Hadley out of her doldrum. At our next session, we took turns reading the article aloud.  I watched Hadley’s face intently.  She was as intrigued as I was when I first read the passage.  The article briefly explained the origins of the fruit sando and then gave a recipe. “Oh, we should make these!” Hadley shouted to me from across her zoom screen.  And then a wisp of sadness came across her face because she knew we couldn’t get together to cook.  I asked her in a cheery voice, “Do you want to see a video of them being made?” and she readily answered, “YES!” I shared my screen and showed her a YouTube channel I found called Emmymade.  Emmy had a 17-minute video called “FRUIT SANDO – Japanese Fruit Sandwich Recipe Test.” Emmy’s presentation was upbeat and funny, a perfect video to engage an eleven- year-old girl. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QdZxLetJSZg

At our following session, Hadley wrote her own fruit sando recipe. And as luck would have it, COVID restrictions were being eased, I had gotten the vaccine, and I would be able to see Hadley again in person in a couple of weeks.  Hadley’s curiosity had returned, she started a new fantasy series, she began writing and illustrating a story to enter into a contest, and most importantly she started smiling, laughing, and asking questions AGAIN.  The Hadley I knew had returned!

Last week, I gathered together all the ingredients for Hadley’s fruit sando and went to her house for our first face-to-face session since the fall.  We constructed sandwiches on her back porch, which conveniently connects to her kitchen.  Though Emmy used Texas Toast for her bread, I found a French Toast loaf that was cut in thick slices.  You might also use brioche bread cut thickly or throw caution to the wind and use pound cake! We used canned whipped cream because of time constraints, but the sandwiches will hold together better with fresh whipped cream.  Hadley and I also brainstormed about other fillings: Nutella, peanut butter, and marshmallow fluff.  The varieties are endless so that these sandwiches can appeal to any palette, even the finickiest of eaters!

Set out the ingredients, cut the fruit, pile on the whipped cream!
Arrange fruit on top of cream, add more cream and top with bread.
Wrap in plastic wrap tightly, refrigerate for 20-30 minutes, cut in half, and ENJOY!

Here are ten books to spark a budding cook’s interest:

Cooking Class Glob Feast!: 44 Recipes that Celebrate the World’s Cultures by Deanna F. Cook

Cook Anime: Eat Like Your Favorite Character – From Bento to Yakisoba by Diana Ault

Easy Peasy Japanese Dishes for Kids!: Easy but Yummy Japanese Meals Kids Can Help to Make by Heston Brown

Japanese Cooking for Kids by Kimberly Ono

Japanese Cooking Made Simple by Salina Press

Japanese Kids Cookbook:  A Dedicated Selection of Japanese Recipes for Kids by Sarah Miller

Let’s Make Ramen!: A Comic Book Cookbook by Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan

Super Simple Cooking for Kids: Learn to Cook with 50 Fun and Easy Recipes for Breakfast, Snacks, Dinner, and More? By Jodi Danen

The Complete DIY Cookbook for Young Chefs: 100+ Simple Recipes for Making Absolutely Everything from Scratch by America’s Test Kitchen Kids

The Manga Cookbook: Japanese Bento Boxes, Main Dishes and More! by Chihiro Hattori

Here I Am!: Conferring with Student Writers

There are many things I love and enjoy about teaching – presenting concepts, sharing ideas, being witness to creativity and discovery, but the one thing that is most important to me is connection.  I know that connection is key to student understanding.  Without connection there are just untethered ideas.  And that is why I absolutely love the time I get to sit down with student writers and talk about their work. Many teachers are not comfortable with this part of writing workshop. They are tentative.  They are not sure what to say.  They focus on errors in grammar or spelling to guide them, instead of homing in on the content and meaning.  In Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide, Ralph Fletcher and Jo Ann Portalupi note that, “We should expect plenty of failure: false starts, blank pages, misspellings, and so on.  Failure is an integral part of how people learn.  But we also need to build on their strengths – take notice of and celebrate a great work, sudden twist, surprising image…” Teachers might, indeed, start by asking students to create an “I can be” list.  In this way, the children can explore and ponder all the possibilities that lay ahead of them.

Fletcher and Portalupi suggest that these questions might help you “read” the student you’re working with: 

  • What can I learn from her body language?  Does she seem “up” and engaged, or listless and bored?
  • What kind of writing is she attempting? Is it a poem?  Fiction story?  Personal narrative?  Information piece?  Notebook entry?
  • Where is she in the process?  Has she just begun, or is she almost finished?
  • Is this a genre she has never before tried?
  • What are her strengths as a writer?
  • What is she ready to learn?
  • What surprises me about the student?

In order to promote reflection and make conference time more productive, teachers might ask a student to re-read her writing before the conference.  Ask the student to put an asterisk next to the place in her writing where the writing worked well. Then ask her to put a circle in the margin next to the place where the writing needs more work.  This will help to shorten and focus conference time, and build the scaffolding needed for the student to become an independent and confident writer.

The most important job of the teacher during writing conferences is to listen intently to the student-writer.  Try to put everything out of your mind and be present as a listener. Think about how the student’s writing is affecting you, and then let her know how her words have moved you.  Do not focus on errors and weaknesses.  Rather, give specific, concrete praise: colorful details, a funny moment, a surprise ending.  As Lucy Calkins says: “Teach the writer, not the writing.”  Give the student one strategy to add to her repertoire of writing skills.  In this way, she’s not just fixing this one piece; she now has an extra tool to use on all her writing!

A number of years ago, I read Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing.  Bomer urges teachers to search for hidden gems in student writing by focusing on author style, purpose, and language, rather than concentrating on mistakes. She encourages teachers to make conferences celebrations of student writing: “My hope is that as teachers we can respond to all students’ writing with astonished, appreciative, awe-struck eyes.”

As a Curriculum Coordinator, I no longer have my own band of fearless writers, as I did when I was a classroom teacher. Now, I have to invite myself into classrooms and talk to students about their work.  Teachers are happy to share their conferring time and I get to see students in all stages of writing development: from the Kindergartener who diligently labels her drawing, to a 2nd grader who is learning to add dialogue within a complicated fairy tale variant, to a 3rd grader who is constructing a speech using biographical information, to a 5th grader experimenting with forms of poetry.  I wonder at the complexity that writing entails, and I am now beginning to fully understand why writing takes time and patience and presence.

This week I was once again reminded of the importance of being present – of stopping what I was doing – and listen.  I was reading through the students’ submissions to our literary magazine, Spark.  I nodded, I smiled, and I laughed out loud.  The children boldly put their thoughts and feelings on paper in the form of poems, letters, stories and articles.  They chose pieces that were important to them.  They chose pieces that whirled them away into fantasy and pieces that sunk them back down into COVID reality. As I was reading, I gasped as I came across this gem from a 5th grade writer.  This skinny little, brave poem stood up and demanded to be recognized.   I read it again to myself.  Then, I read it aloud and said, “Wow! Now there’s a poet!”

This poem stands up straight and speaks for itself.  I couldn’t wait to talk to the student-poet.  I couldn’t wait to tell her how much I connected with the poem – how important it was.  The next day, I came into school early, hoping to catch Chelsea before classes started.  I found her in her classroom organizing her desk, and I motioned for her to meet me in the hall.  She looked a little surprised and I added, “You are not in trouble.  I have something wonderful to share with you.”  She came out into the hall, and I told her how much her poem meant to me and how powerful it was.  I told her that I was putting it at the very end of the magazine because it was so very powerful that I wanted to end the magazine on a strong note.  I could see her smiling behind her mask, and I was so glad I took a few minutes to connect with her face to face.  Then we went on with our separate days until I got home later that night and found this waiting in my email inbox.

There is no doubt that Chelsea is a writer – no doubt that her strong opinions and emotions will enlighten the world.   And there is no doubt that connecting with student writers is of the utmost importance. Writing is so much more that spelling, grammar, and punctuation – those skills will come in time.  But the students’ lives and how they express their experiences help them better understand and cope with this swirling world around us.  Take a moment.  Sit down. Listen.

Books About Teaching Writing

  1. A Fresh Look at Writing by Donald Graves
  2. After the End: Teaching Learning Creative Revision by Barry Lane
  3. A Time for Wonder: Reading and Writing in the Primary Grades by Georgia Heard
  4. Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard
  5. Craft Lessons by Fletcher and Portalupi
  6. Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz
  7. For the Good of the Earth and the Sun by Georgia Heard
  8. Hidden Gems: Naming and Teaching from the Brilliance in Every Student’s Writing by Katherine Bomer
  9. How’s it Going?  A Practical Guide to Conferring with Student Writers by Carl Anderson
  10. In Pictures and In Words: Teaching the Qualities of Good Writing Through Illustration Study by Katie Wood Ray
  11. Inside Writing:  How to Teach the Details of Craft by Donald Graves and Penny Kittle
  12. Revision Toolbox by Georgia Heard
  13. Study Driven: A Framework for Planning Units of Study in the Writing Workshop by Katie Wood Ray
  14. Teaching the Qualities of Writing by JoAnn Portalupi and Ralph Fletcher
  15. The Art of Teaching Writing by Lucy Calkins
  16. The Journey is Everything by Katherine Bomer
  17. Writing: Teachers and Children at Work by Donald Graves
  18. Writing Workshop:  The Essential Guide by Fletcher and Portalupi

Playing with Language

I have long believed that play is the heart of learning.  In play, we create, take risks, fail, recreate, and grow.  In my teaching, I offer children experiences in play with numbers, scientific principles, philosophical concepts, art, and language.  These forays into learning always result in new and deeper understanding, and surprising discoveries.  This week, I continued to think about poetry as play and encouraged 4th grade students to play with using Spanish words to enhance their poetry.

The students recently completed reading the mystery, Me, Frida, and the Secret of the Peacock Ring by Angela Cervantes.  The story centers around the theft of artist Frida Kahlo’s priceless peacock ring. The author added some Spanish words throughout the story to give her readers a connection to Spanish language and Mexican culture. Frida Kahlo often added words to her paintings such as “Viva la Vida.” Frida was a master at creating vivid images with paint to express her feelings.

After looking at many of Kahlo’s paintings, I asked the students to create vivid images with words by writing a poem using both English and Spanish words. I supplied them with a list of Spanish words and phrases used in the book and encouraged them to also add their own Spanish words to their poems. The students could write poems about something from the book or from Frida’s paintings that they had seen. I told them not to be afraid to play with words and ideas. I suggested that they should write a few poems and decide which ones they liked best.

Here is the way I explained how to build a poem with Spanish words:

Here are examples of poems I created to use as mentor texts:

Frida Azul

Blue sky
Azul
Green leaves
Verde
Sad Face
¡No llores!
¡Lo siento!
True Friend
Una Buena Amiga 
Viva la Vida
Para Siempre
Forever
Blue sky
Azul




Free Bird, Pájaro Libre

Dark eyebrows
Knitted together
Take flight like the wings
of a wild bird
Pájaro
Paloma
Colibrí
Pequeño
Pero con una gran imaginación
Perfecto
She flies free
High over Casa Azul
High over Ciudad de México
Sailing through the air calling,
“Estoy aquí!
Estoy aquí!
Estoy aquí!
I’m am here!”

Here are two student examples of playing with this concept:

I want to explore this concept of using multi-languages to express feelings and ideas.  I realize that many students who are English Language Learners could excel at this activity and be class leaders in integrating two or more languages.  How wonderful it would be to weave a student’s first language into their English poems and stories. I plan to play with this idea, build upon it, and see where it leads.

After walking in the park recently and witnessing a loving moment, I wrote this poem. I wanted to combine my experience with the words of Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.  I use my own poetry practice to help me formulate how to present these same ideas to children.

Picture Books about Frida Kahlo

Frida by Jonah Winter

Frida Kahlo and her Animalitos by Yamilet Maldonado

Frida Kahlo: The Artist Who Painted Herself by Margaret Frith

I am Frida Kahlo by Brad Meltzer

Me, Frida by Amy Novesky

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales

Spring Mosaic

We have traveled the long dark cold tunnel of winter and made it into the light! This year that journey is especially sweet.  My confirmation of spring came this week at school where first and second graders have been busy writing poetry. After reading Kenard Pak’s book, Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring, the first graders tried their hand at writing poems.   The neat and concise form is comforting to beginning writers. All students, no matter their level, felt successful creating images of winter and spring.  Here are two examples.

One of my private students, who is in 5th grade, tried here had at this poem format and created this:

The second graders focused on sound mixed with imagery.  They explored including onomatopoeia in their poems.  First, they brainstormed as a group what they see as winter turns to spring. Then they made a list of the sounds that could be heard in the springtime.  Second graders, in particular, love to play with sound. They like to get silly.  They take risks and there is a wonderful spontaneity to their poems.

The students’ poems inspired me to take a good look at the world transforming from winter to spring.  I decided to take a long deep breath. I made myself pause, look around, and notice.  I wanted to collect images that I could arrange into a collage of sorts or more aptly, a spring mosaic.  Here is what I played with this week.

Spring Mosaic

The moon appears 
Like a pearl in the morning sky,
In the woods, beneath the brown
Undergrowth, skunk cabbage
Pokes its green ears
Out of the soggy ground.
Spring peepers croak out
A morning song,
Yellow buds pop from
Tender tangles of forsythia,
White and lavender crocuses
Quietly bloom 
In their small way.

Bare branches are laced
With pink, white, yellow-green,
Cherry, pear, and dogwoods bloom.
Birds gather and scatter
Swooping here and there
Looping through the blue sky
Up toward the pastel clouds
Then landing lightly,
Visiting feeders and garden gates.
As turtles lounge on logs
Sitting end to end in the pond
Following the sun.

On the fertile surface,
Another spring is reborn.
The Earth is renewed.
A soft rain lightly falls
Slowly forming puddles,
In their reflection,
My spirit is restored.

Five Spring Picture Book Choices

  1. and then it’s spring by Julie Foliano
  2. Spring is Hear: A Bear and Mole Story by Will Hillenbrand
  3. We are the Gardeners by Joanna Gaines
  4. When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes
  5. Worm Weather by Jean Taft

A Time to Celebrate Women

It’s March and among other things it means that it is time to reflect on the accomplishments of women.  For me, this means creating another Women’s History Challenge for my school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students.  I started this event almost ten years ago as a way for our school, a private girls school – the oldest in New Jersey, to honor women.  It is an enrichment opportunity and is optional, though every year at least twenty to twenty-five students eagerly participate.  The Challenge consists of researching ten women plus another of their choice. The girls have six weeks to complete their research.  In mid-February, I present the list of women for that year.  Then the students who decide to participate work independently completing their research by the end of March.  While the students are busy researching and writing, I create a Women’s History Challenge quiz show in the form of a slideshow.  There are ten questions focusing on the lives of each women.  Also, I gather pictures of the women who the students have chosen for their independent projects.  In early April, we all gather to share information and celebrate the girls’ hard work researching.  The celebration is in the form of an elegant tea party. I got this idea from feminist artist Judy Chicago’s installation – The Dinner Party, which honors the lives of 39 women.

We prepare a large classroom in the style of high tea: lace table cloths, colorful tea pots, vases of flowers, and table settings in springtime colors.  There is the traditional tea menu: tea sandwiches, tea breads, shortbread, sugar cookies, fruit salad, and an assortment of flavored teas. As the participants enter the room, you can feel the energy and see the excitement on their faces.  The girls are ready to share what they’ve learned and also eager to taste the treats and plop one or two sugar cubes in their teacups.  I learned that sugar cubes are a much favored treat with eight to eleven year old girls!

During the tea we have the quiz show and girls take turns answering questions about the featured women.  The emphasis is on the knowledge they uncovered.  There are no losers here.  They are all winners because they have learned how to conduct research and found out about women they had not previously known.  After the quiz show, each girl presents information the women they individually research.  We ask questions and marvel about the lives of the women we had honored that year. It is one of my favorite school celebrations.

Last year, we had to create a virtual tea part due to COVID-19.  I was worried that it would not be as special because I could not set up the high tea finery or prepare the luscious treats.  But I was wrong.  Even virtually, the girls happily celebrated and their individual presentations were even more spectacular.  This year, I’m in the midst of planning our second virtual tea.  Since we are lucky to have a hybrid/in-person schedule, the girls will be taking home a treat bag and then zooming into our virtual tea when then return home in the afternoon.

When preparing for the Women’s History Challenge, I have learned so much about all different women in all different walks of life.  I try to gather a diverse list every year.  Some years, I focus on women in the arts or women in science.  This year, I chose women, most of whom I had not heard of before but who had picture books written about them.  Every year I learn something new, and the students learn to be curious and are inspired by so many women role models.  I wouldn’t be surprised that one day they may have a book written about them that other children will read and be inspired by.

Recent Picture Books About Ten Remarkable Women

  1. Celia Cruz – My Name is Celia by Monica Brown & Rafael Lopez
  2. Eleanor Foraker – The Spacesuit: How a Seamstress Helped Put Man on the Moon by Alison Donald
  3. Ruth Bader GinsbergI Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark by Debbie Levy
  4. Amalia HernandezDanza! by Duncan Tonatiuh
  5. Edith Houghton  – The Kid from Diamond Street by Audrey Vernick
  6. Edna Lewis Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis by Robbin Gourley
  7. Sarla Thakral – Sarla in the Sky by Anjali Joshi
  8. Gabriela Mistral – My Name is Gabriela by Monica Brown
  9. Ethel PayneThe Power of Her Pen: The Story of Groundbreaking Journalist Ethel L. Payne by Lesa Cline-Ransome         
  10. Anna May Wong – Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo