Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Oh! These Tests!!?!! One Non-Omniscient Teacher's Perspective

We’ve been in the throes of ‘rigorous’ testing for weeks now.  I’ve watched children try to read passages on numerous topics well-beyond the realm of their possible background knowledge, some with topics that seem to have been unearthed from ‘the most-disengaging-passages-ever’ tombs of old.*  After stumbling through the reading of (some) seemingly endless passages, students are asked questions (again, some) that have adults with master’s degrees scratching their heads.  All along I think, why?  What is this doing to quantify students’ competence as readers, writers, thinkers, speakers and listeners (as if these competencies can ever truly be quantified)?  As the scores roll in, we’re not surprised to see stats like 35% proficient for the third grade.  Not surprised at all.  Yet, we have taught like our "hair’s on fire" this year and, actually, for many years.  The results of these tests don’t scratch the surface in terms of our students’ capabilities or their growth.  It would help if the passages were more engaging and of a reasonable length, and that the questions asked were: a. discernible and b. appropriate for eight year olds and up.  Honestly, looking at some sixth grade questions, I was taken back to the days of my college advanced English classes.  I get ‘rigor,’ but much of this is just stupidity.

It makes me sad to think some of our kids walk away from these tests thinking, “I’m sure not good enough.  I didn’t understand much of that.”  Well, no, actually, kids, “You are good enough.  These tests are not.  And, we don’t understand that.”

In our drive to advance our students’ status across the world, collect data to prove that status, get to the “top of the race,” and involve our children in ‘rigorous education,’ we’ve lost our common-sense.  Yes, we need high standards, but do sixth graders really need to understand omniscient point-of-view and be able to find the exact line(s) from two passages with a total of twenty paragraphs wherein the author shows the reader evidence of this perspective?  (How many texts from the 20th century and beyond are actually written from this perspective, anyway?)  Should third graders be able to dissect and analyze a text to the point of identifying the purpose of paragraph 3 (out of say, 8 paragraphs) and how it contributes to the overall structure of the piece?  Are these items really relevant?

I’m all for looking closely at texts, but looking closely at elements that are appropriate and relevant for the grade level.  I’m more for making sure all our readers are proficient, can engage with text in meaningful ways, love to read, write, speak, listen and think deeply about the meaning of what they’re reading, and who choose to read and write outside of school and for far more than school-ish purposes.

To borrow a line from one of our first grader’s recent opinion pieces, “Who’s with me?” (He’s pictured below.)  Let’s do more reading and writing for real purposes with engaging texts and spend less time preparing for these types of tests.  There’s a lot more at stake here than ‘racing to the top’ of somebody’s educational agenda.  Who do we want our students to be as readers, writers and thinkers?  What do we want them to be able to do as readers, writers and thinkers?  Pick out text evidence for omniscient point-of-view?   

*I’d be happy to share examples, but as you probably know, we are all forbidden to do so.  Or, to talk much of any of it.  In fact, after you read this blog post, you must eat it to dispose of the evidence.

I'm with him!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Hello Maryland! SoMIRAC 2015

     Hello!  I'm so excited to be attending and presenting at the State of Maryland Reading Conference!  As many of you know, I taught in Prince George's County for a couple of years.  Many of my dear friends still live here--I'm hoping to run into some of you today! 
     Maryland holds a very dear spot in my heart.  I loved working and living here.  It is such a vibrant place.  There are so many top-notch professional development opportunities year-round.  I always felt like I was right in the middle of all the cutting-edge happenings!  I remember my good friend Barb Gallagher and I hopped the train one Friday after school to attend a Teachers College Reading/Writing Project Saturday workshop.  Wow...I sure miss those days! 

     Below are the handouts for my sessions today.  If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me.  Thanks for inviting me once again to share in a tremendous day of learning with you all!  I LOVE being a part of it!
Happy reading/writing/thinking!  

From the "Quick Bursts of Writing Across the Curriculum" Session:
*Quick Writes strategy poster:

*Thinking Boxes strategy poster:

*Quick Jots strategy poster:

*Quick Tries strategy poster:

*Rules for Quick Writes (you could print this poster size)  
(there is a much nicer version of this here:)
*Notes on Keeping Standards High in Everyday Writing  (which gives some helpful tips for ensuring students do their best work even during these quick, informal opportunities to write)

Resources from the "Why Am I Writing This?" Session:  
Note:  I couldn't get this saved as a google doc with the correct formatting, so this is a png image.  If you'd like a copy of the original document, just email me.  

Monday, March 23, 2015

Stella Writes Posters Are HERE!

I'm thrilled to announce the Stella Writes posters are available!
(See close-up photos at the end of the blog post.) 
Putting these together was no easy task.  I mean, Stella's great--a real super-star writing mentor who kids and teachers love, but trying to distill what is demonstrated in the books and best-practice writing strategies down to shortlists was tough!  I think the points that were settled on will be really helpful in classrooms--great reminders for the opinion, informational and narrative genres and writing in general (see the "Tips For Writers" poster below).  Plus, I love the pictures and the "Stella-isms" (wise quotes from Stella that come from the books). 

Oh happy day!  I love writing and it shows!  Enjoy!  :)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

FREEBIE MADNESS Weekend Happening Now!

I've avoided posting about my TeachersPayTeachers products here, but I just have to post this one little note.  Just yesterday, I started a new Facebook page to post TPT updates and other fun things:
I've been putting up many of my TPT products for free as my LIKES have been going up.  You can see all the FREE offerings on the page.  I think this is pretty nuts since I've spent like a zillion hours making these products!  But, I'm hoping, after I finish a few other projects that are on my plate, to start posting lots of great stuff to tpt. My store is just getting going...

I'll be blogging about that at .  I have 1 follower there!  Ha!  I started that blog awhile ago, but was unable to keep up with that one and this one and Facebook and Twitter and full time teaching and parenting!  But, I'll give it a good try once again.  Hope to see you there.

Don't miss out on the FREEBIES!   There may be something you really like!  Plus, I might even post more as the day goes on.  But the madness must end tonight...since tomorrow's Monday: weekend over, folks, back to reality!

Thanks so much!  Enjoy your Sunday! -Janiel
P.S. Thanks to Nikki at Melonheadz Illustrating for creating this cute graphic and for coming up with the name for my new Facebook page.  :)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


One of my good friends said she feels she's taught writing less effectively this year than any year before because so many of her lessons have been focused on the skills needed to successfully write prompt-based, on-demand essays for the new yearly writing tests.  One skill set to rule them all, I guess.  How sad.

Seems like a recipe for "Writicide."  (Tip of the hat to Kelly Gallagher...*)

Our high-stakes writing assessments just finished for the year.  Teachers have fretted and wrung their hands, but worked hard to prepare their students, in every grade, third and up (that's A LOT of students!!!) to do their best on these tests.  Now what?  What do our students think about writing after being fed formulaic strategies for responding to prompt after prompt with a focus on using text evidence above all else?  Do our students want to write?  Do our students know how to generate their own topics based on their own interests?  Do they know how to skillfully pursue these interests through reading and writing?  Do our students know how to use sources in a balanced way; noting with clarity what authors have to say then pushing beyond the text to stimulate and articulate their own innovative thoughts or ideas?  Given the test instructions and the rubrics, teachers were openly worried about allowing their students to include their own ideas in their writing on these tests.  (Yes, you read that correctly.)  To be fair, the rubric does encourage and reward elaboration, but only that which directly follows from information provided in the text sources (don't think too far outside the box or beyond the sources assigned).

I watch my son, at the age of 7, joyfully pursue writing for multiple purposes.  Yes, he completes writing assignments in his first grade class, some based on choice, but he writes at home based on his own motivations, often stimulated by what he is reading.  He has an eye and an ear for reading like a writer.  He fearlessly tries out the writing moves and writing forms of his idols.  He seeks response.  He gets it.  He asks for endless notebooks and pens.  He composes on his computer.  He wants to have his stories published.  He is a writer and he knows what writing is all about: stories, information, lists, letters, notes, labels, calendars, reminders, poems (he just wrote one this very minute), you name it, he is willing.  And, he smiles at his efforts.  (How did he get here?  Part of the story can be found here: )  Will he keep his enthusiasm for writing if he, too, is subjected to year after year of this kind of 'writing test prep?'

Smiling matters.  Writing matters for much more than tests.  Our students' conceptions of what writing is, what writers do, how they write and why they write, matters.  Balance matters.  If we're going to avoid an epidemic of "writicide," we need to stand up for what matters in our writing classrooms every day.  There is no one skill set to rule them all, though essay writing certainly has its place.  Think carefully, act thoughtfully.  What else matters for our writers?