How do you ditch “safe teaching” when prepping for THE test?

How do you ditch -safe teaching- when prepping for THE test-

Often, teachers feel limited in teaching in creative and engaging ways in light of a high-stakes test. How can we manage that? (Public domain image via

In a recent blog post, I suggested that what we consider “safe teaching” might be risky teaching after all.

In this post, I talked about how all the traditional, overused teaching techniques — lectures, worksheets, etc. — are easy for students to ignore. And when they’re ignoring instruction, there might as well be no instruction going on for them.

But many teachers use those “safe teaching” strategies in hopes that they’ll work. I’ve found they’re especially used when teaching to a high-stakes test. If things don’t go well, they’ll have an instructional alibi. They might defend themselves, saying, “Well, I did X, Y and Z and they still didn’t learn it!”

I received an email from a 10th grade English teacher with the same concern I’ve heard many express: How do I use engaging, creative teaching techniques when there’s a test to prepare for? She was looking for examples she could share with her department.

Below is my response to her, and it’s my response to many teachers that share this same concern.

The truth is that I don’t have the answer for this issue. It’s one that teachers have grappled with since the advent of high-stakes testing. It think you’ll find that there’s no silver bullet, no exact answer to this challenge, because I don’t think one exists.

I would love to see your comments and suggestions about this struggle that many teachers face. Please consider adding a comment at the bottom of this post with your ideas. Thanks!

Thanks for your email. I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s a tough spot us teachers are in when we’re expected to prepare students for a high-stakes test and still want to do what’s best by them.

Here’s the heart of what I’m getting at. What so many of us have done for so long — lectures, worksheets, inauthentic activities — are becoming increasingly ineffective. It’s easy for a student to mentally check out of a lecture. They give less than their best on meaningless worksheets. Contrived activities don’t motivate them.

What I’m saying is that if we try something — anything! — to try to stimulate them in new and different ways, we’ll likely have more success.

I’m in a tough position to tell you exactly what to do to make this happen. I don’t know the 10th grade English curriculum very well, and I don’t know how you teach. Group projects could definitely work, but my guess is that pushing the stereotypical contrived projects — “do a poster together about this story we read” — probably won’t break through to them.

Some ideas:

  • Have them record a news broadcast as if they’re live at the scene of what you’re studying.
  • Let them create a fake text message/Twitter/social media conversation between two characters.
  • Have them create a map (digital or not) of the setting of the story you’re studying. If it’s fictional, make it up! If it’s a real place, create a real map (or use Google MyMaps or Google Maps Street View).
  • Have them make comparisons from life in the story to life in today’s world. i.e. How would Caesar’s relationship issues in the story manifest themselves in a high school? What would that look like?

Not everything has to be project-based, but I know that many of my most memorable lessons/activities from school were from projects we had to conceive and bring to completion.

Part of the problem in getting example activities and projects from me is that I’m giving you ideas that I’m passionate and excited about. I don’t know what your motivations are, and I don’t know your students’ motivations. You are much better positions to create some of these new ideas yourself. Explore your own personal passions and interests and see how those can be incorporated into lessons (because passion is contagious!). Find fun, interesting ways to sneak your students’ interests into lessons. Even if you don’t think they’re fun and interesting, your students might! (Plus, if you can’t come up with ways to incorporate their interests into lessons, you might try asking them. You never know what you’ll get from them!)

Many times, after hearing something like that, people will ask, “How do I even know if this stuff will work? What if I try something and it flops?”

The truth is that there probably will be failures. Some lessons will flop. That’s OK, though. I’ve found that two remarkable things happen when I try something new in class and it flops:

  • My students are very forgiving because at least we’re doing something different.
  • They’re stimulated by the novelty of whatever we’re doing, and even if the lesson isn’t designed well or is executed poorly, they still end up learning as much or more than from lessons they perceive as drudgery.

So, my hope is that you might try something new and different. Again, I’ve never been in your classroom and don’t know what day-to-day instruction looks like for you. But if you find that your students are bored with the status quo lessons and aren’t getting enough out of them, it sounds like you may not have much to risk by trying something different.

I hope this helps. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me back!


Question: How do you manage the struggle of doing creative, engaging teaching in light of a high-stakes test? What are your thoughts about managing this struggle? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

  • Sarah says:

    I have been creating Digital Breakouts for test review for 3rd-5th graders. They are reviewing concepts needed while trying to unlock the codes. They don’t even know they are reviewing!

    • Becky Peters says:

      I would love to have the specifics of what you are doing!

    • Barbara Pitts says:

      How intriguing! This sounds very DitchThatTextbook-ish, as if you have made the shift into that world we all want to provide for our students….. Is this something you would be willing to explain and/or share a link to?

      Thanks for your consideration!

      • Sarah says:

        Digital Breakouts use the same premise as the regular BreakoutEDU, but instead of physical locks, the students unlock codes on a Google Form. The parts of the form will not unlock unless the correct code is put in. In the digital version, students click on links that take them to different websites or activities. Students then have to do an activity in order to figure out not only the code, but which lock it unlocks. I’m in Texas, so our standards are different from Common Core…but check out the links below for some examples:

        3rd Grade Math –
        4th Grade Writing –

        • Kathy says:

          Sarah, thank you for giving us the links, and for giving me a teeny, tiny bit of success–I managed to get ONE clue (5-letter word) on your 4th Grade Writing one (even though I technically don’t have permission to use parts of it, according to a message that popped up). Before you posted this (2 pm) comment, I had gone to the Digital Breakout site and tried three that they had posted, and could not even get one clue correct. On your 4th Grade writing one, I can see lots of errors in the newspaper article excerpt, but I have (literally) no clue as to how that might help me get the codes. For the numbers, I’ve tried the dates (different combos of month and day, because a 4-digit year is too big), and various random numbers. I could see myself spending a lot of time (which I don’t have today) trying various things, but I can also see myself getting frustrated and quitting. What am I missing or not understanding? Thanks again!

          • Sarah says:

            Hi Kathy! I don’t want you or the students to be frustrated! Try the 3rd grade one. I changed the permissions so that anyone can view the hints. On the breakoutEDU/digital site, try the Og the Dinosaur challenge. When I introduce digital breakouts to students, that is the one I walk them through. Now, that being said, these aren’t for everyone! There is another teacher I work with who hates them and gets truly frustrated with them. Something that helps is doing it with a group. Students are never doing this on their own in the classroom. Having other people to bounce ideas off of helps tremendously!

            Oh, and on the 4th grade writing one, you need a 3 digit number lock and there are 3 paragraphs in the newspaper article, each with a different number of errors. 🙂

        • Tia says:

          Oh my goodness! This is too much fun!!! I know what I’ll be doing this weekend – figuring out how to adapt this for my AP Eng. kids!!

        • Bonnie says:

          When I click on the 3rd grade math one, it says that I don’t have permission to view the form. Could you possibly share it outside your district? I love this idea, and I know the kids would be extremely engaged!

  • Carina Stillman says:

    I don’t disagree with what you say here and I think there is a place for activities like those you have suggested. I would like to add a couple thoughts: Test prep doesn’t have to be boring–test prep can be embedded in all that we do on a daily and weekly basis. We can use text-dependent questions to deeply analyze, discuss, and even write about articles, essays and stories we read. The way we structure our lessons, the strategies we use, the tech we include and collaborate with all help increase engagement and relevance.

  • Courtney Donson says:

    It’s not super exciting or super different from what I would do on a day-to-day basis, but for test prep we are using released tests and I am having them work on their own and then with a partner to discuss what the answer might REALLY be, then turn in for quick scoring. If they are wrong, they can correct for 1/2 credit…This builds the conversations that they are having and makes it more competitive for those that thrive in that environment.

  • Heidi Shorr says:

    At my grade level, third grade, this is a frequently discussed subject. Conversations shift as “the test” gets closer to prepping, teaching kids how to fill in bubbles (yes, we really have to do that!) and how to improve scores. It can be very difficult not to get sucked in and deliver boring and ineffective lessons during this time. Aside from the obvious problems with this, we are sending a message to the students that this test is more important than anything else, creating higher test anxiety resulting in some kids checking out. I just began a unit of historical fiction book clubs. The students choose a book from my list and will work with a group to discuss and analyze the books. The books are of high interest to this age group- I Survived and American Girl books are very popular. Before reading with their groups, the students are researching the settings of their stories to gain background knowledge while practicing all of the skills needed for reading and understanding non-fiction text. Tomorrow they will begin reading with their clubs. We will follow a schedule, read together one day, then discuss with critical thinking questions I provide. Some days they will read independently, but still meet with their ‘club.’ At the end of the unit, they will choose to write a continuation or a new ending for their book. All of what we do will be preparing them, but without the practice tests and drill. They are so excited about their choices of books and can’t wait to start reading with their clubs. I’ll still find time to practice filling in those dreaded bubbles, but hopefully lessons like this will keep my kids engaged in learning while prepping them for the test. Guess I’ll find out next year when the scores come in!

  • Kathy says:

    This is in response to Sarah’s 3:07 pm comment, I can’t seem to respond to it as a continuation of the thread.

    Thank you, Sarah–I still can’t get into the 3rd-grade one at all, right after clicking on the link it says I need permission.

    Later today I’ll try your hint for the Grammar Gurus one–but what if you count the Oxford comma as correct, and I don’t, or vice versa? (or something similar…) I’d have to try it both ways, I suppose. I would never in a million years have come up with the idea of “3 paragraphs, a different number of errors in each paragraph, that gives you the 3-digit clue” idea.

    I already tried Og the Dinosaur (before my first post) and got nowhere. I can do the puzzles and such, but can’t figure out any clues from them. I’m guessing that the pictures of the dinosaurs are an alphabet of sorts, and that I should use that to fill in the blanks of one page to come up with an answer, but I found it too cumbersome to go back and forth between the pages, trying to remember what picture I am looking for (I freely admit that my memory is not what it used to be; whether young students’ memories are any better is debatable–they have the shorter attention span which may correspond to my poor short-term memory, I’m not sure!).

    This might just be another item to add to my list of “Things that make me feel stupid”, like technology in general (which is one reason why I subscribe to this blog, in an effort to get a little less stupid). But I’ll try it again before passing judgement! Thanks again!

  • John says:

    As a small scale way to start this kind of change, I recommend a very simple thought: If you want the students to demonstrate content knowledge, give them lots of ways to demonstrate that knowledge. If you want them to display a process, let them choose the content. We don’t do that so much in the traditional classroom and so there will need to be some guided release.

  • Debbie says:

    In any test review process, routines have to be different. Different schedule, different activities, different homework, different for students to know that this process is to help them reach their Goal; passing the test or showing a years worth of growth. In previous years, our math department of teachers would pick a theme and come to school dress up on a specific day and do an off the wall activity outside or at the track or in the gym. It has to be different and of course out of the norm.

  • Neith says:

    I think of the engaging activity as the ‘teaser’. It could be just 10 minutes at the beginning of a lesson OR one whole lesson at the beginning of the section.
    E.g from yesterday.
    “Find 3 monster movies to show the class where HUMANS are combined with ANIMALS. (Add to your YouTube playlist and share with me) THEN do the ‘Are mermaids real’ activities in your Google Classroom.
    This was to teach research skills to Grade 9s. Their BIG test results are much better now – for all their subjects.

  • Bonnie Campbell says:

    Though it may sound trite, I use BLOOMS Taxonomy to push the thinking levels of my students. By thinking about the verbs that describe the various levels of BLOOMS, I am able to devise activities that demand students apply the knowledge learned in previous lessons. For example, I may ask for a time line that incorporates both historical and fictional events that surround a novel read in class. (TALE OF TWO CITIES comes to mind, or NUMBER THE STARS.) By demonstrating the struggle of the thought process and allowing students the opportunity to “safely” fail in an endeavor, we teach them to apply their knowledge. At the same time, I used ideas from CRUNCH TIME by Gretchen Bernebie who understands the necessity of incorporating test taking skills and allowing creativity in the English class.

  • Stephanie says:

    Last year I used Blendspace to helpvreview for the test. I created a 3 by 3 grid with the 9 most important skills we had to practice. I found articles and activities that were engaging where students could practice the skills, but they weren’t chained to a test prep book. How often do you have to truly practice eliminating answer choices and filling in a bubble? I had a 100% passing rate which was incredible, but because my peers criticized me violently for not “teaching safe”, I switched grade levels to find more like minded coworkers. I think part of the reasons my kids excelled was because they were not beaten down daily by the test; they just kept learning. When it was actually the day to demonstrate their learning, the test did not intimidate them.

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  • Mariah Babbel says:

    I LOVE this post! We are currently preparing for our state test as well. This week I planned theme days for each day of the week, leading up to our test, that tied into engaging activities. One day we did a grammar boot camp (Kim Bearden inspired), we have done Neon day with black lights and highlighting text evidence, our last one is carnival themed (Hope King inspired) and they will have to research directions to different kitchen items that will in turn make something (ice cream, funnel cakes, popcorn, etc.) All of the skills used in each theme day tie into our state standards, which in turn means they are reviewing for the state test. The kids love it and it also has eased some of the nerves that testing brings with 3rd grade being their first year of testing in our state.

  • Kellie may Brace says:

    I made up a cool one for a maths tests. I made it into a game. Similar to a multiple question test. I put on the white board a question. Then I wrote three answers underneith the question. I then wrote a object under each of the answers. The students had to get into a group of three and make the object with their body they thought was the answer. For example the question might be.

    What is 2-3+4=?

    A) 5 (bicycle)
    B) 3 (train)
    C) -2 (trampoline)

    This way it was very hands on and fun! Just by looking around the room I could see who was processing the answers faster.

  • Jennifer says:

    I let go of the test prep mode and continue to teach. My students are engaged in a lot of hands-on or gamified activities. This works out to reinforce what they have been learning due to the high levels of communication between students. The test prep trap stops real learning and urges kids to memorize only. I have not seen a big difference in test scores from the old way and how I manage things now.