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    Progress on paper

    A fourth-grade class has sharpened its skills for today's big state writing test.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 21, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- The fourth-graders in Kim Lopez's class sat cross-legged on the floor, craning their necks to study a bar graph tacked to the bulletin board.

    On this early February morning, Lopez pointed to the chart and told her 10-year-old charges that 60 percent of the class would have failed the state's annual writing test if it had been given in September.

    "That's scary," muttered one student.

    Today, fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders throughout Florida will sharpen No. 2 pencils, break exam booklet seals and spend 45 minutes taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in writing.

    Lopez's class is ready.

    The FCAT is a favorite target for public school teachers around the state, many of whom complain that preparation monopolizes the classroom, overly stresses students and doesn't accurately measure student progress. The writing portion is today, and reading and math tests come in mid March.

    The test is a pressure-cooker for teachers, too. The state gives every school a letter grade, based in part on student performance on all the parts of the FCAT, including today's. Administrators carefully track whose students excel and whose struggle.

    In fourth grade, students receive writing prompts that ask them to either explain or tell a story. Critics say the test encourages boring, formulaic writing: I like something for three reasons. Here are my three reasons. That is why I like something for three reasons.

    Lopez has been teaching 22 years. She started teaching fourth grade at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg two years ago, vowing that the FCAT wouldn't steal the spirit from "Lopezland," her classroom's nickname.

    Lopez teaches several tried-and-true approaches for organizing essays, which her 28 students recite constantly. But she also encourages students who are more advanced to branch out, writing letters or journal entries if that fits the question.

    When Lopez got her students' practice scores in September, she learned that they did pretty well organizing their papers. What their writing lacked was details, varied sentence structure, engrossing mini-stories and vivid word choice.

    Lopez wrote lessons around her students' needs. An hour is spent on writing each morning, but honing the skill reaches into every other lesson.

    The students write letters home to parents every two weeks, describing their progress. They practice penmanship writing a how-to list about building a circuit. They craft stories about Florida history. They get impromptu spelling lessons when Lopez shouts words and checks their journals.

    Lopez even wrote lessons for parents, inviting them to learn how to teach their children about lively writing at home.

    Like other teachers around the state, Lopez knows she walks a fine line between just enough and too much. She has heard fifth-grade teachers complain that writing is jammed down fourth-graders' throats so much that they hate it later on.

    So, Lopez encouraged imagination and voice. Danzel Hammonds obliged, coining a phrase that is now a class favorite: "hit me like a sack of manure."

    "I tried to break out of the mold," Lopez said.

    On the walls of Lopez's classroom are lists about qualities of good writing: focus, humor, good word choice, paints a picture, rich examples supporting the main idea. The students quote the lists when they practice grading each other's papers.

    "I love it," Lopez said, overhearing her students groan about misspelled words, run-on sentences and unfocused papers. "Everybody's a critic. "Kids are a lot tougher on themselves than I would be on them," Lopez said.

    The students coo at writing victories, oohing and ahhing over chef Emeril Lagasse-esque "Bams!" or similes such as, "I was feeling lazy like a hippo basking in the sun." Of the word "basking," Morgan Calero observed, "That is a very strong writer's word."

    Lopez glowed when she heard a student "was as happy as a bumble bee drinking gooey nectar."

    When Lopez shared practice test scores with her students in early February, it wasn't to scare them about where they were months ago. It was to show them how far they had come.

    By January, all of Lopez's students were "passing" the practice writing tests, which means earning at least a 3 on the 1- to 6-point scale. More than 20 percent were scoring fives or sixes, "exceeding expectations."

    How did they turn around in four months?

    Sean Burnett's dad gives him writing prompts after school. Brenda Hammonds' mom makes her write in a journal when she reads. Jessica Allen practiced managing her time better and pledged to "use onomatopoeia and write neater." Zoe Avery, who said she loves using her imagination, writes in a notebook at home.

    "I love writing, to put down on paper what you think," Zoe said.

    Kalima Haneef started the year with a 1. She hasn't done it yet, but she has her sights set on a 5.

    "I thought you had to write a story and be done with it," Kalima said. "Now, you can do a little more. When I do my writing, all I want to do is elaboration and details."

    With one week to go before test time, Lopez invited eight of last year's fourth-graders to answer questions about the writing test. Then, the fourth-graders challenged the fifth-graders to a game of FCAT writing Jeopardy. (The fourth-graders won.)

    Even after all of the preparation, the class relies on a bit of superstition.

    Today, students will find goodie bags on their desks, with a good luck poem by Lopez, sugar-free peppermint gum and peppermint hard candies. Peppermint is supposed to stimulate the mind.

    After a pizza party and some much-needed lounging Wednesday afternoon, Lopez will carry on with more writing lessons.

    But there won't be any more narrative or expository essays. Starting Thursday morning, Lopez's students are going to publish a class newspaper and try their hands at poetry.

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