Test-Day Preppers

Every year, for six days in April, we, like loads of other elementary school kids around the country head into Test Day.  In Missouri we take what we call MAP, or the Missouri Assessment Program, in Communication Arts, Math and Science.  And we, like loads of other elementary school kids around the country prepare for that testing.

But this is where we’re different.  Well, at least different from some classes.  Before I go on, I feel like I should explain that I am not a copy-lots-of-packets-and-fill-in-bubbles-for-a-whole-month-before-the-test kid of teacher, who stops everything else and focuses just on test prep.

In fact, I’d say that I’ve been preparing my students to do well on the MAP since our first day in August, by asking them to read closely, think critically, work neatly, solve problems and explain their thinking.  In that way, they are ready to demonstrate that learning when asked to show what they know on our state tests.

In addition to that, there are a few things we do to help pump us up, build our confidence and help alleviate the stress related to high-stakes standardized testing:

1. Talk about testing as a genre.

While I do not spend weeks and weeks having students fill in bubbles and complete packets and packets of practice tests for each subject, we do spend time looking at and talking about what the tests will look like.  We unpack the tests (which are examples of released items that have previously been on our MAP, or are examples from other states’ whose tests are similar to ours) and talk about what we notice.  We compare “real” reading and writing with “test” reading and writing.  We noticed that much of that difference comes in the purpose for the reading/writing  (“they” choose that for us instead of us making the decision) as well as they content or structure of the reading/writing (“they” choose what the text looks like, rather than our having a say in it).  We talk about how to tackle these differences and what to do when we don’t have control over it; we discuss what we do have control over–the strategies we use and the ability to do well.  We break apart the word assessment, as well, and dig into the connotations we have for that word.

Words that came into our heads when I first said the word "assessment."  Some were obviously positive, and some were not.

Words that came into our heads when I first said the word “assessment.” Some were obviously positive, and some were not.

We all agreed that this state assessment, like every other assessment they encounter (both inside and outside of school), is really about showing what they know.  Their goal should be to do their best.  That’s it.  🙂

2. Encourage problem solving, risk taking and confidence by introducing Monday Motivations.

Our "Quote Worthy" wall with quotes that encourage us to do our best--on everything we do--not just the test.

Our “Quote Worthy” wall with quotes that encourage us to do our best–on everything we do–not just the test.

There have been many more added since this picture, all with the intent on reminding students that they have much in them that they can pull from, and that they can do so many great things if they just believe it and then make a choice to make it happen.  Each of the last few weeks I’ve shared a quote that we would then discuss, write about, and connect with other quotes we know.  These because a part of our classroom lexicon, and you’ll hear students using these encouraging words often when they talk to each other.  🙂

3. Talk about and work with words.

As we read books together, we investigate words we don't know, and connect them to what we do know to help make sense of them.

As we read books together, we investigate words we don’t know, and connect them to what we do know to help make sense of them.

While this is not specifically related to testing, it helps students on their tests, as they are asked to demonstrate their understanding of reading and writing.  All year long, we’ve been collecting words we didn’t understand, breaking them apart and looking at their parts to help figure out what they mean.  This helps us connect new words to these parts that we know, helping us to make sense of what we’re reading.  We’ve found words in other texts and made connections to writing, as well, by using new words we’ve learned.  And since vocabulary is connected to spelling, our word work supports that piece, as well.

4. Review concepts.

Some of what students are asked to do on tests requires them to apply processes and strategies to new situations, like with reading and writing about an unfamiliar text.  Some of it, however, is directly related to remembering facts.  For us, this is especially true in science, where anything they’ve learned since kindergarten is fair game!  In order to remind them of what they know, we watch a series of videos (many of which they’ve seen before) and then create a class poster of “big ideas” form each set of concepts.  They work with a partner to create a representation of each big idea, similar to what we did when we were studying Native Americans earlier this year.

After we created all of our posters, I had them do a gallery walk with a partner, discussing what each image represented.  They were to make notes with their partners, again reviewing and talking about concepts they’ve learned previously.  Hopefully both these posters and conversations will come to mind when they encounter any of these things on their tests (even after the posters are covered up and the conversations are over!).

5. Covered up content with encouraging words.

There are many things that are no-nos during testing, which includes anything hanging on our walls that might suggest content, strategies, etc.  But rather than take all of the things down (our decimal place value chart, punctuation study chart, science posters, calendar), we cover them up.  The idea is that even if you can’t see the actual content on the poster, your brain will fill in the information that you’ve been looking at on them for all of these weeks, thus making them helpful anyway!  We also took the opportunity to throw in words and phrases that would be encouraging.  For every class those words are different, and this year’s were by far the most creative!

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I think the fact that they are words that we actually say, that they’ve been using all year, they are even more powerful.  These words bring back memories of meaningful conversations we’ve had, strong memories of moments when they’ve overcome struggles and achieved goals.  These words, which are perhaps a bit silly, are theirs.  And they are powerful.

6. Get families involved.

A week or so before testing starts, I send a request to families to ask for their support in helping us get ready for the MAP.  Like I mentioned before, one important piece to the puzzle (in my opinion) is alleviating stress.  One way I do that is to invite families to write letters to their student.  They send these encouraging words to me before the test, and then I pass them out just before we get started.  These notes are like an extra special hug from home at a time that could be really stressful, and they work wonders.  I do the same thing and write students notes about how proud I am of them, how much I believe in them, and how “they got this!”  Often, some of the quotes we’ve been studying together show up here as an added encouragement.

7. Feed their brains.

In the same letter home about writing a letter, we also ask for help with sending healthy snacks for our testing days.

Yum!  Our testing snacks include lots of fresh, "real" food that good fuel for working brains!

Yum! Our testing snacks include lots of fresh, “real” food that good fuel for working brains!  Included are things like Cuties, carrots, apples, cheese sticks, cheese crackers, granola bars, cereal bars, pretzels and bananas.

There is also a fresh stash of mints and gum, which help wake up tired brains and keep their minds engaged.


So really, while it’s a big deal, it’s all pretty simple.  I believe it is my job (from the first day of school), to encourage my students to be thinkers, readers, writers, mathematicians, and learners.  I see it as my goal to help them feel confident and ready, so that these six days in April are really no different than anything we’ve been doing all year.

How do you prepare for testing?  We’d love to hear about what it looks like in your school!


Meet S.H.A.D.O.

I really hate it when I have an idea for a post and then time gets away from me.  Eventually I find the time (or I remember the post that I had forgotten to write!) and it happens.  Eventually.  Today is one of those posts.

We actually met S.H.A.D.O. weeks ago.  She is now our good friend.  And boy is she helpful!

Who’s S.H.A.D.O., you ask?  And why is her name spelled like that?  Let me tell you all about it.

This is S.H.A.D.O.:

And she is one smart cookie.  No wait–she’s an owl.  Ok, so she is one wise owl.

Her name stands for:

And while I would love to take credit for creating her, I can’t.  I found her when I was on www.prometheanplanet.com, which is a support site for the interactive whiteboard we use at school.  The flipchart she came from (and that we now reference frequently in our classroom!) was submitted by Melissa McGahan.  So, like many great ideas that I use in my classroom, I did not think it up, I just figured out the right time and place to use it!

Ok, back to S.H.A.D.O.  She has been helping us during the recent weeks as we prepare for MAP testing (which I talked about related to science the other day here ).  She helps us remember that there are some basic strategies that good test-takers use when they tackle a test (whether it’s a state test or just a plain ‘ol end-of-unit test) to help make sense of it.  There are different parts of her body that remind us of these strategies.

Here’s what they are:

I have been amazed at how this representation–in picture form–has been so helpful to so many of my students.  While I have always taught these strategies, I’ve always done it with words, not images.  We have always created a list of “smart” things to do, then had that list displayed in a variety of places around our classroom.  Just like in the past, S.H.A.D.O. is now displayed all around our room, as a reminder when you look at her to do what she suggests.  (As a side note, I love how the other day someone wrote a blog post about how they love S.H.A.D.O., but she’s a little creepy because she’s always watching us with those big eyes of hers!  HA!  The minds of 5th graders kill me sometimes!).  It’s simple, really, and I don’t know why I didn’t think of using a picture before–I’m a very visual learner myself, so it’s something that would have helped me, too!

So since we’ve become introduced to S.H.A.D.O., we’ve tried out her strategies on various assessments we’ve done in our classroom.  Is she helpful to everyone? No.  Does everyone need her reminders? No.  Do we always go through all of the steps she suggests?  No.  Just like every strategy I share with my students, they have learned which steps at what time with which assignment she is helpful.  That’s the key actually–know how to use the tools at your disposal.  So she’s there in our toolboxes if and when we need her.

And as a side note, I believe that S.H.A.D.O. was originally created to help with reading/communication arts tests, but we’ve found that you can apply most of her strategies to other subjects as well.  The other day we tried them with a math test and they were perfect.  Nice how that works out.

If you are a teacher, and you got through this post and you’re still thinking “Great idea, but I already do other things to prepare my kids,” I ask that you focus in on a part of S.H.A.D.O.’s suggestions that maybe you don’t specifically do.  For me, it was the steps related to bracketing and numbering the paragraphs, then marking the main idea next to each one.  Using that step has forced (in a good way!) my students to slow down and really think through each and every part of the texts they read on tests (both fiction and nonfiction–and heck, we even used it on poetry today!).  I think that if there is a magic bullet here, it’s that one.  Having the paragraphs marked like that has made it so much easier to go back to the text to find support for answers.  They now know so much more quickly exactly which paragraph to go to find the information they need.  Genius. 🙂

I’m adding a screen shot of what that step looks like next, because for me the words I just wrote wouldn’t make much sense (See?  Me=very visual):

So, I invite you to introduce S.H.A.D.O. to your class.  Come on, she has great ideas.  And hey, S.H.A.D.O. knows. (Ah, you didn’t think I could get to the end of this post without a joke like that, did ya?)

One more thing…if you’re a parent, I am interested in knowing what your kids are saying about S.H.A.D.O.  Maybe you were already introduced to her, or maybe you have another story about how she’s helped your student in class.  Share with us!

Do You Remember It All?

Of course, not, silly, but I can help you pull some of it out of the depths of your memory!  Wait–let me back up a little bit.  Remember when I mentioned the other day about how we are going to be starting MAP testing in a couple of weeks? Well, one thing that we have been doing to help us prepare for the Science section of that test is to review concepts that they have learned about previously.  Because, of course, they probably wouldn’t remember all of it without a few reminders.  And pretty much anything they’ve ever learned about (yep, since 1st grade!) is fair game on this test.  So we had some work to do.

This week we went back to an activity we’d done with past units in Social Studies in our classroom.  Since I knew that it worked to help us remember big ideas and I knew they had fun doing it, I figured it was perfect to pull out again.  Plus, unfortunately, the last few units we’d been doing in Social Studies had been more of the sit-and-read-from-this-book-and-tell-me-what-you-learned type units, so they were ready for a change.

We have access to Safari Montage through our school district, which is an amazing resource for videos to supplement your curriculum.  There is a great series by Schlessinger Science Library that presents concepts in a fun and informative way with short, interesting videos.  This week we watched several videos and then created window murals to help us remember the big ideas.  We worked with a partner or in a group of 3, and created representations for each big idea on the mural.

Here’s what we’ve been working on this week–

This one was after a video called All About Plant Life:

Can you see the big ideas of leaves, roots, what plants need, how plants are different from animals, photosynthesis, and how they give us oxygen?

Next we watched a video called All About Animal Adaptations:

I wish the picture had turned out better, but this one had big ideas about how animals have to adapt to their environments to help them survive.

On Thursday, the topic was animals again, but this time Life Cycles:

And then Friday we moved on to Electricity:

It is always great to see what my students do when they are given a challenge, and how much fun they have doing it.  I loved how so many kiddos mentioned this activity when they shared in our closing circle on Friday.  The Friday question is almost always “What did you like or what did you learn?” and a majority of kiddos mentioned that they liked going back to this again.  And any time we can learn in a fun way, I’m all game.  We have more window space and more science to review, so there are surely more of these in our future next week!  I am sure my class will be just fine with that. 🙂