Archive for December, 2018

Making Lemonade

December 17, 2018

Now is about the time of year when I give my fifth grade students an assessment on literary analysis. We have spent a fair amount of class time learning how to write proper claims and arguments, and we have also discussed the type of language that is best suited for the tone of academic writing.

These essays are part of my year-long data gathering; I use these to determine growth among my students across the year. So when I look at their work, I’m hoping to see kids using the structure and conventions I’ve taught them.

It is so very hard to be patient.

It is so very hard to look at these novice, rough-around-the-edges attempts with a generous eye.

It is so very hard to look at where the kids are now, and not be so very discouraged about how very far we must go from here. To not look at the papers and give up because it all feels like one hot mess.

I knew that if I sat down now to fill out the rubrics on their writing, it would just make me crabby. Everyone knows they don’t want a crabby teacher evaluating their work.

So, I decided to hit the brakes for a bit and get the students involved. I had them read their work aloud to themselves to get a feel for how it “sounded” to them.


Then, I asked them to choose a recent work to compare to their beginning of the year writing, and reflect from there. The questions were:
-When you compare your work from the beginning of the year until now, what strikes you or surprises you?
-In what areas have you seen the most growth in your writing?
-Looking at the most recent essay, what areas do you see yourself needing to improve or strengthen? What skills do you need to learn?

Lo and behold, as they do just about every time, my students came through. The level of thoughtfulness and insight that the kids brought to their responses was encouraging and refreshing. Just as I had hoped, their reflections on growth reminded me that indeed, their writing has come a long way since the beginning of October. Much to my relief, many of their areas for improvement were the same as what I would have suggested.

In a busy and stressful time of year, this activity was a reminder to listen to my loveys, to allow them the opportunity to reflect, and to celebrate their growth and development.

Quite the holiday gift.

On Teaching and Transparency

December 14, 2018

I’m always complaining that I don’t have enough mentor texts to teach my students about reading and writing concepts. I can never get enough. That’s why I was so excited to introduce a concept to my two fourth grade groups yesterday and today.

I got the idea from Kristin Ackerman and Jennifer McDonough’s book, Conferring with Young Writers: What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do.  They suggested creating reference books to teach writers about skills and strategies they can use in their work. Want to learn more about personification? Find the reference book to see multiple examples, then give it a go in your own writing.

Over the coming weeks, my students will mine both their favorite books and their own writing for mentor texts to create these resources, and they are as excited about the proposition as I am.

But that’s not what my post is about. Sorry to disappoint.

Here’s the thing.

The top of the student form reads, “Mentor text submitted by______.” As soon as I passed the papers out, a student asked, “What’s a mentor text?”

What’s a mentor text?


You mean, that thing that I use nearly every. freaking. DAY in the classroom to teach you reading and writing skills? And agonize over how I will find more? And more quality ones? And plan nearly every. freaking. LESSON. Around?

You don’t know what a mentor text is?

The answer was no. Not one of the nearly 20 fourth grade students had any clue.

And I thought, how is that even possible? How is it possible that there is something so incredibly integral, so incredibly critical to what I teach, yet my students do not even know what I’m talking about?

To say it was eye-opening was an understatement.

I’ve done a bit of thinking since then, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

There is a lot of teacher language that my colleagues and I use. We use a lot of technical vocabulary around reading, around writing, or behavior, or learning. What is stopping me from using that language around my students? What stops me from calling things what they actually are?

Frankly, I’m not sure that anything really is.

I’m not entirely sure where this will all lead, but there is one thing I know for certain. As a teacher, I need to think deliberately and with intention about the language I use. If I want my students to use the language of craft, and the language of learning, I have to make sure that I am open and clear with them about what I’m doing, and how I’m teaching.

My students DO know what a mentor text is now. At least they’d better, because it came up at least eighteen more times in our conversation. But my other blind spots? The other assumptions I’m making about their knowledge or vocabulary?

My guess is, if I’m becoming more transparent in my teaching, those are going to come up soon enough.

They will have to.