Friday, September 25, 2009

Four Square: Think in Fours for Higher Test Scores!

Maybe you have heard your child talk about the "four square method" and were wondering what it is about. "Four square" is a simple technique that my team thought up a little over a year ago to find a simple way to help improve NECAP test scores at Mount Pleasant School. Using it for less than a year, Mount Pleasant passed the reading portion of the NECAP test for the first time in years (there are many other strategies successfully used at Mount Pleasant and much hard work that also helped improve those scores- but I believe that the four-square method was the key strategy that made the biggest difference). Like anything that works well, it is very simple.

By teaching this strategy and using it in our daily work (and in all subject areas) I have found that my students become much more proficient at organizing their thinking and writing more detailed answers. The key reason for using it for NECAP tests is that there are many written response questions on the test. A multiple choice question is worth one point, a written response question is worth four points. We noticed that most students would only write a simple one detail answer for these written response questions. Once we understood that they are looking for four details (each worth one point) we had to find a simple way to help kids slow down, organize their thinking, and include 4 details per response.

To use the four-square method we have the students draw a box divided into four sections. In each section they can write (or draw) one detail. From this organizational method they can more easily write a more thorough answer that earns them more points on the test. It works wonderfully and there are lots of written response questions on the test, so that adds up to a lot of extra points ready to be earned. We have been practicing using this method in class. When the students plan out an answer they think and respond better, rather than just give a simple answer. It has invigorated the discussions about the stories we read, because the students dig deeper to find the details that they would ordinarily overlook.

You can read a more in-depth article I wrote on the four square method here. The technique has now been introduced to the teachers at New Searles and teachers are using it in their classrooms. I have even heard that the kindergarten class is using it (drawing four pictures). You too as parents can use it at home. Don't just ask your child what they learned at school, ask them to name four things. Have fun with it and help remind them to "think in fours to improve test scores!"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Have Fun and Practice your Spelling at Spelling City

Vocabulary and spelling made fun is an excellent website that I found last year (article I wrote). It is a simple and wonderful way to practice your spelling word lists. I really appreciate that as a teacher I can type in each week's spelling list and students can choose many methods to practice or test themselves on the words. The words and sentences are read aloud by a human voice (not a computer voice).

To find each week's list go to and click on "Find a List". Click the button for username and type in newsearles234 (no spaces). You could also search by "teacher" (Jim Hansen) or by the list name (the name of the story we are reading). Then just click on the name of the story we are reading (this week: "Looking for a Home") and from there you can explore all of the activities that are available. You do not need to sign up or sign in to use Spelling City.

Parents: if your child practices on the site, please put a quick note in the agenda such as; "Worked on Spelling City" to let me know that is being used.

Have fun practicing your spelling words

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wall Wisher: Online Sticky-notes

I was looking for a good way to communicate with parents and came across a website called It allows you to set up bulletin boards with Sticky "Post-it" style notes. The page of notes can also could be embedded on a blog. I am trying it out. I find it useful to write quick notes about homework or other classroom activities this way as I can do it anytime and don't have to use up paper. I believe I have set the options so that I am the only one that can leave a note (I have seen what fifth graders can do with sticky notes and don't need my computer decorated that way!). I can edit the notes (not easy) and delete them, as well as arrange them on the desktop if I want to waste some time. I hope that parents find them useful. I have put up extra help for completing some extra credit assignments that make the work easier and more understandable for my students. I can also write silly notes; I wonder if the boys will see what I wrote today? If you forget to write the homework down or if parents want to check your assignments then you can look for a homework note each day. I put a link to the full screen version of our class page to the right. This works better if you are clicking on a link to a web page that I provide on a note. I hope you find this useful. The website is free to use and parents may find some use for it themselves.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Using Animoto to Create Digital Poetry

I am teaching at a new school in Nashua this year. After 21 years of teaching at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, I have moved across town to teach at New Searles Elementary School. It is exciting learning the culture of a different school, meeting new teachers, and starting all over again in a different setting ( I was in the same classroom for all 21 years at Mount Pleasant). I like what I see at New Searles and I know I will enjoy teaching here. I also get to learn a new curriculum as I have moved up to a fifth grade position. To top it all off, I have gone from a class of 17 students last year to a room with 27 students, fortunately they all seem nice enough so it is going to be a great year full of adventure, learning, and fun!

Not being one to procrastinate when it comes to teaching, I got the class off to their first project on the first day of school. Fortunately we have been having gorgeous weather in Nashua and that of course meant we had to go outside and study some of the trees in front of the school. Before we did that however we had a lesson that focused in on words and how they can be used (and how to play around with them). I prepared a similar lesson at Mount Pleasant School last year and wrote about it here. Briefly I gave each students all of the words from William Carlos Williams poem, "The Locust Tree in Flower":

The Locust Tree in Flower














The words were not in order. I asked them to make sense out of these words. They could add words if they wanted and could write in phrases, sentences, a paragraph, or even poetry form. When I showed the class the poem they were a little confused as it didn't make sense. I told them my best interpretation of the poem is that William Carlos Williams put the words in a random type of order with some omissions of important words. Upon reading the poem a few times the class matched up some words together and started making some sense of the poem.

I took the class outside and divided them into four groups to study four different trees in front of New Searles School. I told them to write down words or phrases that described the tree and its surroundings. Later upon entering the school, we used the words to create our own poems like "The Locust Tree in Flower". I told them poets are rule breakers and get to write their own rules. The rules I wanted them to follow was to have a title, and a thirteen word poem (one word per line), and to arrange it like Williams' poem 3 words, space, 3 words, space, 3 words, space, 1 word. For homework I had them tear out the paper and colorize each word on each piece of paper. The next day we went outside and arranged the papers on the grass. Fortunately it was another nice day and the papers did not blow away. I took 27 times 15-20 photos for each poem in under 45 minutes and filled up my memory card on the last photo! I did see some students took the "poets can make up their own rules" in their own way and misspelled some words or put more than one word on a line.

The photos will be used to make animoto videos (Digital Poetry) of each student's work. I made a couple of sample videos here. I have a ways to go since the school computers cannot handle this task. However, I think some students may wish to try this at home so for those who choose to do that I will send them the photos.

Animoto is a fun little program. Teachers can sign up for a free account here. It makes professional looking videos that are matched up with music. Each video is unique and can be shared. A free account will let you make videos at home, but they are limited to 30 seconds each. Animoto just announced that you can insert video clips into the videos now, so I went back to the school on Sunday and took a few brief videos of each tree (well one tree was the wrong tree!) and included a video clip in both of the sample videos that I made. The first is Darcy's poem and the second is the poem that James wrote.