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Students prep for state writing exam

PALMETTO — Kyria Holcomb, 9, and her buddy Courtney Williams, 10, worked through their essays quickly on Friday.

With checklists in hand, the Palmetto Elementary fourth-graders read each other’s work aloud, circled spelling mistakes and added periods and commas.

With just days before the writing portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, their teacher, Kaththea Johnson, wanted to make sure they understood the narrative and explanatory essay concepts.

“I want to know if your papers are FCAT-ready,” she told her students, before asking them to give their work a once over.

Schools around Manatee County are going through similar preparations to get ready for the FCAT. The writing tests start next week, while the reading, math and science portions will take place between March 10 and 23. Results are usually released in the summer.

While Manatee schools saw improvement in most test scores last year — earning the district a “B” — the percentage of the district’s fourth-, eighth- and 10th-graders who passed the writing tests were several points below the state average.

District officials vowed to do better this year.

Many schools around the district, including Palmetto Elementary, have been preparing their students since the first day of school.

In the fourth-grade classrooms at Palmetto Elementary, Johnson and other teachers try to make writing fun by turning their students into each other’s literary critics.

They get to read each other’s work and compare them to checklists that Johnson and other instructors gave them. The lists remind students that each essay should contain information such as a grabber sentence, a setting and a time frame.

Johnson then reads the essays out loud to the rest of the class.

“For the most part, they’re not shy,” Johnson said. “They love to be critics.”

Depending on how much they like a piece, students assign the essay points by raising their fingers. They’ll pounce on their classmates if they forget to capitalize the first letter of a sentence, and they keep an eye out for “writer’s tricks” such as the usage of sensory words, metaphors or dialogues.

At King Middle, Principal Joe Stokes said his students have been writing every chance they get.

As part of the new middle school curriculum implemented districtwide at the start of the school year, teachers have been asking students to write in all classes, including math.

“The emphasis at King is, students have to answer questions about key concepts of the day,” Stokes said. “We’re doing that all the time. It’s not just prepping for the FCAT but to improve kids’ learning.”

Spelling out concepts on paper helps students think better, he said.

“Writing helps you articulate thoughts,” he said. “We have writing problems in math. They have to explain how they get the answer.”

School principals say they are seeing progress in students and hope that will show in their FCAT results.

“I hope that the kids can actually demonstrate how much they learn,” said Palmetto Elementary Principal Eddie Hundley. “I know there is teaching and learning going on. I hope it’s reflected in their scores.”