Friday, March 16, 2012

ELA Testing Turning Point: Thinking about What Works

It's that testing time of year.  All year educators weave state, system and federal standards into the curriculum so that when that testing time of year comes around, students are ready to do their best work with skill, concept and knowledge.

The tricky part to this endeavor is that the standards outweigh students' energy and time on task during the year.  Also, the standards have a developmental curve so a lot of the preparation depends on where students are when they enter a grade level which impacts the quantity and depth of the standards a student is expected to achieve. Hence meeting all the standards takes on a puzzle-like action where teachers try to fit in all the necessary teaching in just right ways to meet the standards.

Every year I take a different approach to fitting in all the standards.  The approach differs because my class and supports vary every year. I try to match the approach to the students in front of me as we move from one unit to the next.  Then as I assess students' final preparation, formative tests/assignments and attitudes, I think about what I might do differently and the same next year.

That's where I am today as I consider student work in relation to the standards.  These are my conclusions:
  • The use of ePortfolios, blogs and other online writing tools seemed to impact writing fluency well. None of my students are reluctant to write and most of their stories are told with ease.  I will continue these approaches.
  • The chance to read wonderful books of choice often both in school and at home develops wonderful writers.
  • The use of a picture-book personal narrative unit for craft is an important unit when it comes to developing students' writing skill.  By reading and analyzing the craft that wonderful writers use in picture book stories, students gain the tools they need to write their own stories well. Picture books provide particular emphasis on titles, leads, "heart," endings, voice, dialogue and description. We are fortunate that our librarian has created a top-notch, culturally relevant, dynamic picture book collection in our school.
  • Introducing writer's craft through entertaining exercises is important too.  It is equally important to practice that craft in many different ways to build ease, understanding and fluency with the many ways a writer can use words to entertain, inform and tell a story.
  • As research suggests, my students' primary use of keyboarding to tell stories did not impact their need to handwrite a final story.  I will continue to primarily use keyboarding for story writing, but will provide time to practice handwriting skills as long as tests require lengthy handwriting (hopefully that will change soon). We started this year with a heavy homework emphasis on attaining keyboarding skill, and that has proven successful for many.
  • Continued focus on wonderful words and vocabulary will also develop students' skills--I tell students that wonderful words are like precious gems, and a good story is like a beautiful necklace.  Perhaps we'll even create those beautiful word necklaces throughout the year as a way of focusing on wonderful words.
  • A focus on "small moment" stories and the "story mountain" help students write wonderful stories, and the time it takes to focus on these aspects of writing is an important ingredient to the overall writing workshop curriculum.
I will continue to think about how I will foster wonderful personal narrative writing as well as reading response writing next year from September to March.  Then, I expect that we'll end the year as we do now with an endangered species research unit, a fiction reading/writing unit and portfolio completion.

At this time, I imagine that the writing workshop units will flow like this:
  • Self Portrait Poetry Portfolio Unit with an Emphasis on Voice and Writer's Craft
  • Picture Book Personal Narratives, Small Moment Stories, and Digital Stories.
  • Immigration/Family History Stories
  • Photo Essays/Writing to a Prompt
  • Informational Text/Endangered Species
  • Fiction Stories
The reading response writing units will flow in this way:
  • Responding to Text (Test Prep): twice a week lesson all year (text mainly matching current unit)
  • Self Portrait Poetry Portfolio (this is a writing/reading unit)
  • Book Groups/Story Elements and Genre-Responding to Text
  • Non Fiction Text Strategies and Response: Responding to Informational text related to Immigration/Family History unit and Animal Adaptation unit.
  • Endangered Species Unit: Writing information text.
As you might realize, I enjoy writing and I enjoy teaching writing.  The challenge is to fit in this instruction in meaningful, relevant, student-friendly ways throughout the year.  By gathering my thoughts at this curriculum, testing turning point, I will be ready to embrace next year's class with focus.  

Have I missed anything?  What do you do to build this area of skill, concept and knowledge?  And finally, it's no surprise that those that read, write, draw and compose a variety of genre often, alone and with family members, become the best writers.