It's Hip to be Square

Tuesday, February 11, 2014
brought to you by Lori

It's Day 2 of our Relevant Review blitz! Be sure to check out Day 1's tips and tricks if you missed it.
As it comes closer and closer to test time, we become more and more terrified panicked dejected concerned about our students' progress and upcoming performance on their state assessment. Our instruction consists of militant rigorous review. I struggle to find the right words, slightly in jest. But only slightly. This is a hard time of year. We're stressed and the kids are...well not at all. Just when we need them to be rockstars, they're ready to make every day a mental vacation. But our instruction cannot and should not turn into drill and kill. If we continue to engage them and really push them to think, then we can give them the prep they need without cramming the test down their throats. That's boring and it never helps anyone. [But hopefully you read Suz's post yesterday. Because sometimes we must review the multiple choice, and yesterday she told you how to make it fun.]

Reading assessments, in part, test a student's ability to read a text, comprehend it, make inferences, draw out themes, and support all of those observations with appropriate details from the text. In a multiple-choice format, students are often faced with the following demands:
  • Choosing an appropriate theme.
  • Choosing which detail best supports an inference.
  • Inferring based on a given detail.
Instead of practicing this using multiple choice questions that students will never actually see on their test, the Nine Square activity allows students to practice these skills in an authentic and engaging format that allows for collaboration and small group talk. 

Of all the manipulatives I've made this year, these are pretty simple. Create a table in Word and...voila...easy to print, cut, and sort!

The activity works best with a picture book or a short fiction text. When we went to Lead 4ward's Relevant Review conference in Austin, Gayla Wiggins modeled the strategy with a cute picture book called The Pout Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, but you can do this with any text. I used it with my own students last week using The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson because I like the way it pairs with To Kill a Mockingbird

Teacher Prep: Choose a layered text. Any of our Shared Reading pieces would work well. Set up a 9x9 table in MS Word and dedicate 5 squares for details, 2 squares for inferences, and 2 squares for theme statements. Then, work backwards. Trust's easier this way. Write your two theme statements first, then write your 5 details. From those details, draw out 5 inferences. Once your table is complete, print enough copies for the small groups in your class (7 is enough for me) and cut them out. Generating the content for the Nine Squares takes longer than you would think. If you'd like, click for a copy of my Nine Square for Woodson's The Other Side and teacher key. This is crunch time, people. Take it and use it. 

In the Classroom: Your materials are prepped, and you're ready to go! Remember this is review. You're not teaching your students anything new. Your first step is to review three key academic terms. I had my students go back and add these thinking questions to our visual dictionary.
  • Detail--What does it say?
  • Inference--What does it mean?
  • Theme--Why does it matter?
I like explaining it as a ladder, where you reach a higher meaning each time you climb to the next rung. Now you're ready to read the text.
  • Read the text aloud to students. There is no need to set a reading purpose, and there is no need to stop and clarify for students. This should be a cold read...much like a testing situation.
  • Pass out your Nine Square envelopes. While I pass out the envelopes, I like to tell my kids to talk about the details that they remember. 
  • Tell students to sort the squares into 3 categories--details, inferences, themes. Let them flounder for a bit and then narrow it down by telling them that there are 5 details, 2 inferences, and 2 themes.
  • Allow a bit more time to sort. Visit tables and ask students to justify sorting decisions. The conversation you hear is encouraging.
  • Put up your cheat sheet. Let kids adjust their sort to match your original intention. If a student disagrees with you, hear them out without penalty. Sometimes their argument can be convincing, but other times, it doesn't hold water. You should encourage students by letting them know that we all infer and think differently. [But still...sometimes a detail is a just a detail. Don't let them get away with too much.] Regardless of the discussion, everyone needs to fix their categories to look like yours before moving on. Here's where the fun happens.
  • Tell students to pick a theme statement. Now ask your kids to support that theme with two of the details. Listen to and validate the conversation that happens.
  • Tell students to pick an inference. Now support it with two details. Listen to the conversation. Ask certain tables to share out with others. 
  • Now pick two details and have students write their own inference.
  • Review all of the details and inferences and have kids generate their own theme statements.
We've bumped up the rigor by asking students to create an additional inference.

These student-generated themes and inferences can be posted on your white board or your door. If kids can do this, then you know they can answer those types of questions on the test.

For a great extension, you can have kids make their own Nine Square. I recommend providing a template with some portions already completed. Stay tuned to our Relevant Review Blitz, and I'll show you how to extend this with an additional activity! 

It is hip to be square! Trust me...I know. Let me know how it works for you! 


  1. The link is broken to nine squares. Is there a way I can get a copy of your Nine Square for Woodson's The Other Side and teacher key? Dropbox said the link was broken.

    1. Sorry about that! Shoot us an email, and we'd be happy to get that to you. (We'll also work to correct the link.)