It’s that time of year — the dreaded preparation time for state assessments!

Over my career, many folks told me “Just don’t worry about it.”  The reality for a classroom teacher is we have an obligation to our students, to their parents/guardians, and to the other stakeholders of our communities to do what we can to prepare students both academically and emotionally.

I am a parent and a community stakeholder, too, you see, and as such, I support measures for reducing the number of tests, I participate in writing and evaluating assessment questions, and I advocate for kids always.  But if students will be tested, I will help them prepare.

Although most tests are a combination of reading and writing (and a few other topics), I am going to zoom in on writing for this post.

In recent years, as we approached review time, I would lead a book chat on the Divergent. Most of my students have read the series, but there were always a few who were not familiar with the story.  Then students would line up and draw for their “faction,” an idea I stole from colleague Mindy Bishop years ago.  Throughout test review time, usually two weeks, students sat with their factions, and each day, I presented the factions a challenge.  Often students had to work individually on the task first, but I built in a collaborative element to each challenge. As a team, the factions scored points every day.  (These were not grades or points for the gradebook.)  Setting up the review in this way made it fun, and honestly, the students put more effort that usual into each task.

I recently heard from Mindy, and here’s her new spin on making assessment review fun: “I called it March MAP Madness.  The kids were different college basketball teams from the tournament, and the different MAP prep activities scored them points for their teams.  It was a huge hit with the kids.  The championship team from each hour “won” a pizza lunch with me.  They worked so hard to be the winner.  I just love middle schoolers!”

To review for an on-demand writing assessment, I usually start with prompt analysis.  If students cannot determine exactly what they are being asked to do, they cannot be successful. Some questions for prompt analysis include the following:

  1.  What exactly is the prompt asking me to address in my answer?
  2.  How many tasks are listed in the prompt?
  3.  In what format should the answer be?
  4.  How should I support my answer?
  5.  How will my answer be evaluated?
  6.  What process should I go through to accomplish this writing task?

While I model with a true prompt, one way to add fun is to ask students to devise silly, overly complicated prompts.  Then they trade, do a prompt analysis, and share their results with the class.  Be ready to laugh during the sharing part!

Next, I remind students not to skip prewriting. For most of us, the most difficult part of writing is simply gathering ideas and starting.  Students can go into all-out panic mode just looking at the blank writing space!  If you have been utilizing strategies such as Writing into the Day with quickwrites, your students only need a gentle reminder of tools in their toolbox, such as

  • Quickwrite strategies for prewriting
  • Protocols and reading strategies to approach prompts and articles
  • Habits of mind to “enter the conversation” and to think about all perspectives

For tests, I think the most powerful strategy is the writing sprint.  If students have practiced writing quickly from a word, picture, or simple prompt, they can utilize this strategy to get their thoughts started on the topic, and the simple act of stream-of-consciousness writing may calm their nerves.

As a way to practice without simply asking each student to write an essay, I often ask students to spend 10-20 quiet minutes writing ideas for answering a prompt, followed by time to share and discuss.  Then students collaborate on an outline or draft, depending on time.  Another approach is to ask everyone to write a quick draft, and then the group creates one draft, incorporating parts from everyone’s quick draft.  The real benefit to these strategies is the conversation and negotiations the students have with each other as they work together.

Another activity I used many times was to provide students with student essays I had saved from previous years. Students highlighted parts they felt were successful in one color and unsuccessful in another color.  Then they wrote feedback based on the checklist and/or rubric that would be used for the assessment. Usually the students were more critical than I was when I provided feedback!

If you need practice prompts, I have written two Missouri examples and linked them here:

The MAP prompt is argumentative.  (In Missouri, the EOC is a high school assessment, and the MAP is a middle school assessment.)

An important point to note is that some students need strategies for calming anxiety even after you have provided them with all they need to be successful.  I found that having a conference to talk through the strategies students might use to calm the anxiety was worthwhile.  It didn’t take away the anxiety, but the students knew I supported them and would be pulling for them on test day, and that’s worth something.

Want more ideas?  See this work from the Plymouth Writing Project!

Good luck to everyone, teachers and students alike!

My long-time mentor, Maridella Carter, invited me to participate in the Greater Kansas City Writing Project’s Summer Institute over and over.  She knew I would love the experience, but life kept interfering.  Finally, one summer, I could commit.

She was right; not only did I love the experience, but it was the BEST graduate class/professional development of my career, and I write these words with no exaggeration.

The SI, as it is known, is hard to describe because the experience provides each person what he/she needs.   This is in part because of the goals of the Writing Project, which builds and sustains a professional community by valuing the individual strengths and passions of each teacher.

The SI begins each participant’s journey into this professional community.

During the SI, teachers do the same work they ask of students:  They read, discuss, question, develop inquiry workshops, and write, write, write.

You might think teachers are overflowing with confidence, especially about their writing skills, but most adults are wary, even afraid, to share their writing.  Yes, even English teachers.  Maybe especially English teachers.  After all, we savor the words of the most gifted writers in the world daily. To work past this elemental fear, participants are placed in supportive writing communities in true workshop fashion.

One day during my SI experience, I listened to person after person share their literary luncheon pieces. These are not pieces writers spend weeks and weeks perfecting.  Even so, as each person read, I was caught up in the story, and all the words, phrases, sentences, and so on, seemed perfect. Not good; perfect.  Perfect because the writing matched the purpose, to share the writer’s story.  These pieces were not judged by a rubric, graded for specific traits, edited for grammar, usage, and mechanics.

They were judged by reflective smiles, out-loud laughter, occasional head-nods, and wiping of tears.

It suddenly occurred to me that I should not write any differently than I do.  I will keep practicing and improving, and I will never write as well as the writers I love to read, but that will not stop me from writing.  What a freeing thought!  I decided critical voices will always cut through my words, but unless those voices reflect purposeful, encouraging guidance, they should be ignored.  I left the experience saying in addition to all the content, skills, and connections I gained, it was like I had been to teacher therapy!

My teaching changed after this experience.  I was embraced by a strong community of professionals who encouraged my pursuit of personal inquiry.  I had also broken free of many insecurities I had about writing, which led to a more authentic writing workshop structure in my classroom.  This experience also helped me understand why some teachers resist implementing workshop in their classrooms.  It’s difficult to implement something you have never experienced.

I stayed involved with The Greater Kansas City Writing Project, which provides various opportunities for continued growth and support from this professional community. This summer, I served as the SI co-facilitator, and in the fall, I took on the role of PD Coordinator.  (Let me know if your district is interested in scheduling PD through the GKCWP.)

My only regret is not participating earlier in my career; don’t make the same mistake!

If you would like to get involved in the National Writing Project, go to and search for your local site.  If you are in the Kansas City area, email me at  You won’t regret it.


This is a piece Linda wrote for the summer institute in the Greater Kansas City Writing Project.  Participants wrote about food that is important to them in some way.  Some of the participants had nicknamed Linda Wonder Woman during the SI.


Before my mother discovered she could communicate important family information by texting all nine of her children at the same time, we relayed information in a haphazard way that was more like playing telephone than a pipeline of accurate information.

Patrick:  Two weeks ago mom told me to tell you Barbara’s cat pooped or something.  I can’t really remember what was important about that.

Me: Why would I care if Barbara’s cat pooped?

Patrick:  I don’t know – call Mom!  She’s the one who told me to tell you.

(The real message, Barbara’s cat died, and I looked like the uncaring big sister who didn’t say anything because the message I received was weeks late and about poop.)

On June 5th, I got the message on time:  My dad’s brother Jim had died.

Some time ago my cousin Kelli labeled the generations in our family.  Our grandparents were the G1s, our parents were the G2s, we were the G3s and so on.  The labels were helpful at family gatherings to get people organized for pictures or to indicate who was supposed to go through the food line first.  Uncle Jim was the first G2 in our immediate family to die.

This past weekend, the family held a memorial in my hometown, which was Jim’s hometown, and my grandfather’s hometown.  (In fact, my relatives settled in the area around 1823, and we are related to Daniel Boone, but that’s another story.)  This memorial was as much about sharing our oral history as it was about grieving our loss, so Saturday the G2s, 3s, and 4s gathered on my aunt’s giant deck while the younger G4s and G5s ran and played and reconnected.

Do you remember when Jim and Dan tried to drive over a giant snow pile and ended up stuck on top with the wheels still spinning?

Remember how Jim would make all the kids get up at 6:00 AM on vacation at the lake because that’s when the “water was glass”?

Stories buzzed all around, and I couldn’t settle myself into any one of them for very long. Along with all the action stories were stories about food.

I was always told that since I was the youngest, I had to pick through the cherries that had fallen rather than climb the tree or get on the ladder.  But do you remember how good those pies were – the cherries went straight from the tree into a pie.

My favorite was Grandma’s orange bundt cake.  I still think about that cake when I eat an orange.

Remember when Mom made us eat potato soup for a week so we could donate money to help those in need? I still love homemade potato soup!

On my drive home, I wondered, what food would my children connect to their childhood? I often feel guilty for not giving them the same kind of childhood I experienced, and not having time to make all the food, especially baked goods, is part of that guilt.

Mea culpa, my children.

So I asked.  The answer – black eye pea dip.

But that is so easy to make; it doesn’t even require a recipe! That’s not a signature dish, and it’s certainly doesn’t warrant Wonder Woman status! 

I pushed.  “Surely there’s something else.  Chicken Madeira, perhaps?  Caramel pecan rolls?  Scones?”

Kelsey answered, “No. You always make black eye pea dip at the lake, and when you bring it out, everyone immediately flocks to you. Then we all sit around telling stories about who got up on the wakeboard for the first time that day, or how Brice almost killed me, Emily, Hannah, and Anna trying to throw us off the tubes, or how Robert caught a snake by throwing an empty Huggies box on top of it that one time!  The lake is like my second home.”

Then her eyes and voice softened, “And black eye pea dip always reminds me of family.”


Wonder Woman worthy after all.