A Fresh Start

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Maybe it’s just me…but I’m a *little* glad to have 2017 behind me. Although not a bad year by any means, by the end, I was just ready for a new year. A fresh start. An empty slate.

Isn’t that what New Years are all about? Starting over. Being a better version of your current self. Setting goals (hopefully realistic and not something you regret by noon on 1/1).

That’s what I’m ready to do. I’m ready to look forward with a positive attitude and
not worry about what’s in the past. Sometimes I get stuck focusing on what my kids seem to be lacking in skills or their inexperience and exposure to writing. And it makes me sick. Like…seriously sick to my stomach if I think about it too much. resolutions HNYLD (c) Melonheadz Illustrating LLC 2015 coloredWho’s with me?

I’ve decided that we are going to start fresh on Thursday with goals and targets in mind. These won’t be STAAR related goals. Bleh. Nope. We will be setting specific goals in how to grow as a writer.

For some, this might mean remembering to capitalize I when it stands for our name. #evenincontractions For others, this might mean really taking a break, closing their eyes, and imagining what they are writing about to help them be more specific and descriptive.

Whatever the goal is, we will set some sort of goal and begin tracking our progress toward that goal. Things need to be visual for our kiddos, so visual it will be!

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Let’s talk stations for a bit, shall we?

I’m heading into 2018 with high hopes for running small groups for writing and grammar. #crossingmyfingers I’ve never successfully run small groups like the way I’m envisioning my room, but I’m always willing to try!


I’ve gone over all 4th grade OWC TEKS by this point in the year. Not everything has been taught to mastery. This allows some time for me to teach new skills and then spiral back to them later on.


I want to pull small groups for grammar skills. These students will have intensive reteaching until that content is mastered. In other words, we WILL NOT move on until students demonstrate at least 80% mastery of that skill.

Mastery will be measured on Friday or the last day of the week. Students will be given a performance assessment (journal entry) to show that they can use the specific skill correctly in their own writing. They will also be given a set of questions (multiple choice, fill in the blank, circle the correct answer) to answer based on the skill. Lastly, they will have to tell me the purpose of the rule and what happens without that rule.

This will allow me to see who truly understands the concepts they are being taught and who is a good guesser or test taker.


Journals. Students will need journals. Every lesson we have had so far this year is in their journals. It has a wealth of information. I want students to understand that their journals are tools that can help them in their learning. We will look back at lessons and mentor sentences we have discussed together. We will also be using our journals for more journaling during small groups.pencil girl wb (c) Melonheadz Illustrating LLC 2014 colored

*Side note* Journaling helps students to internalize the rule and reproduce it on their own. If we don’t give them the space to do this, they never will. Worksheets don’t allow students to APPLY these new skills so that they USE them correctly.

Games. Everybody likes a good game, right? Add a little competition into small groups and we might just have ourselves a great little learning opportunity! I believe that guided practice definitely can…and SHOULD…include some fun. This means I’ll be busy creating even MORE games for my sweet kiddos so that we can get in some practice that isn’t just the same boring thing.

Task Cards. Using task cards in small groups gives students an opportunity to move at their own pace. Each student can be working on the same thing, but they are able to work a little better when they aren’t all having to follow along together. This also allows me some time to work with them one on one as others practice (but they can ask for help because I’m RIGHT there). You can explore several games and task card sets here.

Note Cards. Students will be making some note cards to help them remember certain words or concepts. These can be especially helpful for practicing homophones (or common errors) and spelling rules (changing endings).

Dry Erase Markers. And erasers. There’s always time to practice writing on tables. If we decide to write sentences and pass them to our neighbor to correct, I’ll take out some whiteboards.


So…what in the world is the rest of the class doing while I’m huddled around a table with another group of kids? They go crazy and run around like a chicken with its head cut off. We will have a peaceful writing experience with our Writing Menu!


I’m creating a Writing Menu for students to complete. They will be required to finish each activity once for the week, but they will be in charge of how long they spend at each station and which ones they want to double in their extra time.

boy 1 wb (c) Melonheadz Illustrating LLC 2014 coloredThe menu will have these options (to start with, anyway):

  • Free Write (15 minutes)
  • Find 5 sentences that use *grammar rule* and write them down EXACTLY as they appear in your book; explain why that rule is necessary in writing
  • Mentor text: read this mentor text and then use it to help you create your own paragraph about *topic*
  • Reflection on a recent grammar skill
  • Peer Editing
  • Pieces of an essay (introduction, body, conclusion): students will create their essay at their own pace. #jesustakethewheel
  • Publishing

Students will be expected to turn in their work at the end of each week so that I can look at it and go over it. I will also do spot checking during the week. We will see how that goes.


I’ve always wanted to make small groups work in a writing classroom. I know other people do it. So I know I can, too. This will definitely be a learning curve for me, but I feel like NOW is the time to give this a try. Something in me just tells me this is what I need to do for this group of kids.

My goal is to meet students’ needs where they are, hold them accountable, and offer some choice to those who aren’t struggling as much as others. This also gives me an opportunity to pull students who need help on specific skills while allowing the others to move on and do other things that they need to do to expand their knowledge and understanding of writing.

I know things won’t be perfect. #theyneverare But I’m willing to give it a chance. We will go over expectations before we start to clear up any confusion of what students should be doing at ALL times. I’m sure it will take some tweaking here and there, but I’m determined to try this out.

If you have any input or advice, please throw it my way! I’m always looking for new ideas or tried and true ideas that you’ve experienced. We’re all in this together, y’all!

Have YOU tried small groups? Tell me all about it!!

Until next time…



Merging the Old with the New

Hey, y’all! Things are starting to settle down a bit, and I’m feeling more confident with my routines. It’s November. It’s totally time!

Thanks for all the words of encouragement on my last post. It’s nice to know that we all have years where we need to shake things up. And it sounds like, for many of you out there, that year is THIS year. So thanks for following along and being so transparent.

Anyway…I finally got around to taking a few pictures of some student work, new lessons, and a glimpse at our first FULL essay.

Let’s start with one totally NEW thing!


Our book came out last month. Can you tell I was jumping up and down and screaming with pure excitement a little excited about it?

It’s called Text Structures from Nursery Rhymes and it’s just perfect! If you need a copy, you can grab one here.

We have had such wonderful feedback from teachers who have used it in the lower grades, but there is so much in it that applies to our older kiddos, too.

So I tried out one of the lessons with my students who I see in small groups, and they totally ROCKED it!


We used the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb as our mentor text, looked at the structure, and then wrote an essay about our prized possessions using that same structure. I really enjoyed it, and the kids did, too!

It was neat to see how such a simple text could inspire them to write so much about something important to them. Some of these kids are starting WAY behind in writing, as in…gave me 3 sentences on our beginning of year diagnostic writing piece, and they wrote SO much more. Most of the group wrote at least a page! And not only that…it was ON TOPIC!

Happy dance on that one!


I’ve also been doing more sorts with my kids when it comes to spelling rules. All those “shun” endings can make your head spin. #amiright Word sorts helped us wrap our brains around how the words look, sound, and purpose.


We’ve also started our Sparkling Sentences. I wish I had more to show you…but if you read my last post, you’ll *maybe* understand why things are moving a bit slower this year.

BUT…we are starting to get into our groove and we are on our way to learning all kinds of fun things about how authors craft their writing. :)


These are the tools we’ve covered so far (formally, anyway). I’ve talked about using elipses, parentheses, vivid verbs, opinions, examples, and probably a lot more I can’t think of…but these have been with individual students.

FullSizeRender 3My writing conference notes help me keep track of areas of strength and growth for each student. It helps hold the students accountable for what we discuss (and me, too!), and I can tell what my next steps should be at a glance. And let’s be honest…with 93 kids, I need SOMETHING to help me keep track of #allthethings.


I’m just going to go ahead and apologize for the quality of the pictures. See previous post. #tired

You know how sometimes you learn something new and like it…but you really love what you already do? And then you aren’t sure what to do about the new knowledge creeping in on what is comfortable?

Well…that’s me this year. And I just felt like really looking at sentences and how they are constructed would be very beneficial.

So we’ve been looking at several mentor sentences. Our district has a sponsored book this semester, The One and Only Ivan, so I chose sentences from there since they would be familiar to the kids.


And we’ve looked at full paragraphs, too. It’s neat to hear what students notice about how writing is crafted.

I give them the mentor sentence and allow 1 – 3 minutes (depending on length and complexity) to circle anything they notice or thing the author did on purpose. They notice things like capital letters, commas, apostrophes, repeated words, homophones, and nice vocabulary words. They draw a wiggly line under the vocabulary words they like.

This has also allowed us to really tie reading and writing together. We study the sentences and talk about what the author was trying to do or the picture they were trying to create for their reader.

Let me tell ya…when kids TRULY make the connection between reading and writing…they read like a writer and write like a reader…their comprehension of all text skyrockets. They understand the moves writers make when they create a piece of writing, and they are able to draw on their knowledge of how published authors play with language and create a variety of interesting sentences. It’s pretty epic.

Oh…after we notice all sorts of things about the mentor text, I give them the notes and tell them the focus for the day. And then we proceed with creating new sentences or paragraphs in the same way the mentor sentences were made.

This is a lot like what Jeff Anderson does but with my own twist. I’m also weaving in strategies from Gretchen Bernabei…just using different mentor texts since we have been working on the sentence and paragraph level.


Lots of changes…but definitely good changes.


We just started our first FULL writing piece last week. Woo hoo! We finally made it! We began with a piece about something we enjoy doing. I didn’t give them a prompt…I just told them we would explain an activity we enjoyed and left it at that.

They have been working really hard to connect to their reader and paint a clear picture for the reader by using specific language.

I’m really proud of all they’ve accomplished so far!


New editing stations have been brought out, too! I’ve been meaning to get something like this done (rather than writing it all out on the board every time), and I finally just did it!


Students went through editing stations one day and revision stations the next day. This gave us some time to talk about the difference between the two. They had specific steps to take at each station that helped with skills like capitalization, punctuation, AAAWWWUBIS, and vocabulary. I guess vocabulary is a stretch for editing, but this wasn’t meant to be a whole sentence-changing experience…just a word here and there.

And then the best thing in the history of the world happened. (Anybody else a fan of the My Weirdest School series?)


Look at this BEAUTIFUL mess! Can you tell how much hard work went into this?!?! I know some of you out there are having a mini heart attack just looking at that…but to me, it’s a masterpiece!


These are kids who are working very hard and paying attention when I say that the writer’s BIGGEST job comes AFTER the rough draft is written. THIS is the time to change up our sentences, add and take away things that shift our focus, and truly LISTEN to how the writing sounds, making changes as necessary.

Yep. That’s a lot of what we’ve done.

If you’re still reading…you’re the real MVP! Drop a comment about anything NEW you’ve tried this year. We would love to hear about it!

Until next time…


Launching Writer’s Workshop

Well…hello, friends! Long time no see! I AM still alive…it’s just that life hit me and I haven’t had the energy to stop in and say hello.

So…here goes!

We just started our 4th week of school. We’ve been busy at work getting things up and going in our writing classroom.

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The first two weeks we spent time getting our journals ready by gluing in our Keepers 101 chart, tabbing sections for Lists and Entries, numbering our pages, and assigning a page for our Table of Contents. We created a few lists in our journals to give students topics to write about.

Side note: When students exhaust many things on their lists, we will go back and add to them. Some run out and others rarely use them, but we need to revisit them to keep them up to date and with fresh ideas for writing.


We also began journaling. It’s so painful to start. Kids have had off all summer, and most haven’t picked up a pencil since May. I made an executive decision to start with 5 minutes of journal time and work our way up to 10 minutes. And you know what? It was much LESS painful this way. Students were getting used to writing and easing their way into our writing time goal.


Lessons started last week. We’ve gone over nouns with an emphasis on common and proper, verbs, and we just finished up pronouns. With this knowledge, we will be on our way to understanding how to construct a sentence…and that’s up next! (You can grab a set of these Folding Parts of Speech here)

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Our writing and grammar time really merged together the first two weeks. Writing lists takes a LOT of time at the beginning of the year. I want students to enjoy reminiscing and creating lists of experiences in their journals.

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We also spent time TELLING several stories. Students can’t write a story until they can tell a story. So that’s where we always start. Some chose to write some of those same stories in their journals. It worked for us. :)


And don’t forget learning about the writing process! That calls for Writing Process Battle!

I’ve already started differentiating instruction for my kids. After a diagnostic writing piece (required by the district), my head has been spinning with ideas on how to help these kiddos. Many of us have a lot of work to do, but we will get there. Enter differentiation.


For some, we started with a nursery rhyme from the new book coming out next month, Text Structures from Nursery Rhymes. Wow! It has come in SO handy! The kids are enjoying it, and it’s a fast way to introduce text structures and kernel essays. We are almost finished with our first piece. We will do a few more nursery rhymes before moving to more complicated mentor texts.

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For others, we went straight to the planning page that I use every year with my kids. We are writing about a place. Any place. A place they would like to go. A place they have been. A place they imagined. A place from a book. Any place.

I’ve had fun watching them grow in their writing just from the beginning of the year. I know it hasn’t been long, but seeing more and more appear in their journals and more smiles is a great way to start off the year. I enjoy seeing these kiddos let their guards down about writing and begin to enjoy writing in a whole new way. It’s what keeps me going back for more! 😉

So how is it going for you? Seeing any sparks yet? Feeling like you’re running in quicksand? All of it? Let’s talk about it!

Until next time…


A Week of FUN Review!

Last week…as in the week BEFORE Spring Break…my class participated in Game Show Review. (I’ve created a second set of Game Show Review…you can scroll to the bottom for the link.)  In my last post, you saw several kiddos having the time of their lives.

Well…it continued for the rest of the week.  I thought I’d share more fun and sometimes hilarious photos from our games.


On Wednesday, we played Token of Truth.  It’s sort of like poker, but we had no money…so it can’t be considered as gambling.  :)


We practiced our spelling skills and homophone identification and proof skills.  In order to allow time for all students to think and get their answers, students were asked to put their hands on their heads until everyone was ready to answer.


I had my student teacher at one table, her roommate she conned into spending the day with us at another table, and I was at a third table.


I really enjoyed this day because not only did students have fun, it gave us some small group time to talk about the spelling rules and clear up some misconceptions.  I even took out my handy dandy dry-erase marker and did a little reteach on the table when times called for it.  #imcallingthatawin

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On Thursday we continued with more Minute to Win It games.  The first was water bottle flipping…yes, you heard me right.  Water.  Bottle.  Flipping.  This was their reward for answering questions about quotation marks.  #ishouldwinamedalforthat

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I think the boys had more fun than most of the girls, but they were so motivated and loved every minute of it.

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FYI…there is a certain amount of water needed in the bottles for this awful interesting game.  Apparently if they are really full, they bust open and water flies EVERYWHERE. #speakingfromexperience

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And then there was Face the Cookie.  This was the reward game for answering questions about commas.

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Just look at that smile.  #nootherwordsneeded

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This was definitely a hit with all involved.  😉

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After commas and quotation marks rounds, we did a round of both.  Students were not told whether it was a question about commas or quotation marks.  They just had to look closely and decide for themselves.

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Slug bowling.  One of the funniest things I’ve seen in a long time. Students had to try to knock down the water bottles with their tennis ball.

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Some of them got the hang of it very quickly and knocked over several bottles…

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…while others battled it out or stood over one bottle the entire time.  Oh.  My.  Goodness.  #laughsfordays


On Friday, we played Deal or No Deal with combining sentences.

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There were three types of questions involved.  One asked students to identify if the sentences were combined correctly or incorrectly, one asked the best way to combine the sentences with multiple choice answers, and the last one asked students to combine them on their own. #lastonepictured


Students who were not answering questions got to hold a briefcase “sealed” with a point value inside.


When the teams were finished answering the question, they got to choose a case.  Then they decided whether to make a deal or shout, “No deal!!”


And…of course…at the end they all wanted to reveal what was inside their case. :)

If you can’t tell by looking…we had a BLAST this week!!  Test prep has NEVER been so fun!!

Need something like this to liven up your classroom this last week before STAAR?  Click here for Week 1 or click here for Week 2…coming up!  The lesson plans are designed for one hour of instruction.  If you have more than that, you could even do the plans for BOTH weeks together for even MORE fun.  And if you’d like to read up on our first day, click here.

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I’ll be posting soon about our week coming up.  We are ready for round two of Game Show Review!!

How are you handling your last week before STAAR?  Drop a comment below!

Until next time…


Let the Games Begin!

Oh.  My.  Goodness.  We had a BLAST today, y’all!

**PSA: We had a field trip yesterday, so we started our review today.**


Excuse how dark this picture is…but we turned off the lights, played music, and let the kids just take in the scenery.  So yeah…not great lighting for snapping pictures. #notetoself  It was so much fun to watch their faces as they walked into the room.


We started by using the cards from the Game Show Review Week pack I posted this weekend.  In order to keep them from looking at each others’ answers, I had them put their hands on their head to signal they were ready to answer the question.  All other team members were required to look at the sentence and silently answer it, too. And I have to say…they did really well!


It was very tense at times… #lookatthatfocus


Then came the games.  Turns out…it’s much harder to get a cotton ball off of your nose when it’s pasted on with Vaseline than you might think.


But moving M&Ms with a straw isn’t as hard.  They plowed through that one SUPER fast. #maybetheyreexperts


They didn’t seem to have much trouble with this one.  They were just bummed that I didn’t buy them their own personal M&Ms.  But they lived.  Scouts honor.


They are also MUCH better at slinging ping pong balls out of tissue boxes tied around their waists than I am, that’s for sure!


Even the crowd was quite pleased (and maybe a little nervous at times…) with watching our last game of the day. #bewareofflyingpingpongballs

To say I’m exhausted after today would be an understatement.  My feet hurt.  I’m mentally drained.  But it was oh so worth it.

I’m ready for Day 2.  :)

So I leave you with the BEST picture of the day.  THIS is what I saw today.  THIS is what made our day awesome.  THIS is why I have decided to just say “NO” to traditional test prep with boring worksheets.  THIS is test prep for us.  😉


Until next time…


Expository Writing Samples…And MORE!

It’s that time again.  CRUNCH TIME!!!  EEEEEEEEEEEKKKKKK!

Breathe in.  Breathe out.  #wegotthis

Just to fill you in on a few things…when we came back from Christmas break, we focused much of our efforts on revising and editing.  You see…we took a common assessment back in December…and let’s just say my kids didn’t quite make the mark.  Like…at all.

I felt so deflated.  Here I am, the new teacher at the school, and the scores on an important assessment look  absolutely, positively horrendous not so great.  I’m supposed to be this miracle worker…but my scores don’t show it.

Anyway, I felt the need to redeem myself after such a disastrous attempt in December.  In order to do that, my students began looking at STAAR passages and we began our 4th set of POPPERS.  This helped them to see HOW to answer many of the questions that are asked on the test.


To make it more fun, I project it onto the board and let the students come up and do the corrections with a dry erase marker.  Who knew it would be SO much more engaging?!  Haha.


I’m finding that the more they practice WITHOUT answer choices, the better they are getting when they HAVE answer choices.  That’s what I love about this set of POPPERS.  It creates better thinkers! 😉  If you need a set, you can click here.

We took the 2016 STAAR Writing test as our last common assessment.  My kids improved SO MUCH!!  I was ready to turn cartwheels and run down the halls screaming relieved! Whew!

You see…I don’t do the whole “test prep” thing until it’s necessary.  I can’t put worksheets in front of their faces day in and day out and watch the love of writing just being sucked right out of them.  I just can’t.

Instead, we do more fun things like our POPPERS and games and task cards.  It’s the same skill…just in a different format. You can read more about the games and task cards here.

When we focused our energy on the revising and editing…guess what?  My kids totally forgot how we write.  I’m telling you…it’s seriously a miracle for kids to be able to remember anything on the real test day!  Haha.  Poor babies!  We ask so much of them!

So…when our kids are doing well with something, what do we do?  Hit it hard again!  So we began studying essays.


I’ve been blessed with another student teacher this year.  Her name is Ms. Whitman.  She is so good with the kids!  She came up with two paragraphs to read to the students and asked them to draw what they visualized as she read.

The first paragraph was very boring and only mentioned fall leaves.  For the most part, students only had leaves and maybe a tree in their pictures.


The second paragraph was very developed and included beautiful language and specific details such as leaves, the smell of cinnamon that fills the house, and how the cold made her nose red.  You can see the difference in their drawings.

This allowed students to see that as the listener/reader, we want the author to fill in details…enough for us to visualize what the author is telling us.  Which translates to…you are an author and you MUST paint a picture for your reader.  Make your reader CONNECT to what you are saying.  And you do that by SHOWING what you are explaining.


We handed out developed paragraphs from the Expository Paragraph Practice set.  Each table group read through the paragraph and then discussed what they liked about the paragraph.


Some students highlighted vocabulary words they noticed.  Some students highlighted similes.  Some students highlighted what made them SEE what the author was explaining.  But EVERY student critically looked at the paragraph and discussed what made it awesome.

So then it was their turn.


Students were expected to write their own paragraphs, focusing on allowing the reader to truly SEE what they were explaining.


We used the Paragraph Practice pack to help beef up our own skills with developing our body paragraphs.  If you’re a 4th grade writing teacher in Texas, you probably know that the STAAR graders heavily rely on the part of the rubric that deals with idea development.

What this means is…if your students can develop their essay (namely the body paragraphs), they can score a 3 (0ut of 4) pretty easily. The graders can forgive some other mistakes…as long as students have sufficiently developed their reasons.


We have talked about this so much…and rather than writing essay after essay after essay…we focused on just being able to develop one body paragraph at a time.  This was a really great decision, by the way!  The kids are ROCKING their writing now…


We used these Vocabulary Posters to help us put in some better vocabulary and beautiful language.  If I hear “good,” “cool,” or “stuff” one more time….  #jesustakethewheel

Seriously.  The difference between their writing on the Mock STAAR and the writing they are turning into me now is UNBELIEVABLE!

The district asked all 4th grade teachers to have the students rework the essays they wrote for the test.  Of course….it was our worst nightmare favorite prompt…the one about why they like 4th grade.

I know.  I know.


Just take a look at the difference in my students’ writing after using the Paragraph Practice and Vocabulary Posters.

The pictures aren’t the best…because…let’s face it…it’s 9:30 and I’m tired.  But anyway…

The left is what the writing looked like on January 18th, and the right is the essay after reworking it and developing it.  They are both to the same prompt.  Just click on the pictures to see them larger…you know…so you can actually read them.







And this is just a small sample…from students of varying abilities.  There is NO DENYING that their writing morphed SIGNIFICANTLY in a little over a month.


I plan to put these in another post as PDF versions so that they can be printed out and used as samples.  I’ll get that done soon.  :)

I love how it’s all coming together.  It’s so nice to see the improvement right before your eyes.  The students are quite impressed, too!  And THAT’S what matters, right?!?!

Have YOU attempted the prompt from last year?  How did it go? Let’s talk about it! Leave a comment below.

Do you have some last minute questions about anything? Writing? Grammar? Strategies? Sanity?  Let’s hear ’em! Just drop a comment below.

Until next time…