Engaging classes vs. test prep: Can we have both?


Teaching | Thursday, January 28, 2016

Engaging classes vs. test prep: Can we have both?


Preparing students for standardized tests can make us feel like we’re teaching with an arm tied behind our backs. Can interesting, engaging lessons exist in this environment? I think we can’t afford not to teach that way. (Flickr / Globaloria)

Teachers are so buried in requirements, paperwork and other demands on their classroom time.

To make matters worse, high-stakes tests can sap the joy out of teaching very quickly. When there’s more content to cover than there is time to do it meaningfully, every day in class can feel like a threat to a teacher’s livelihood.

I saw this sentiment in a comment on a recent blog post, called “A framework for creating wildly engaging lessons.” In the post, I laid out my DITCH approach to teaching, creating classes that were different, innovative, tech-laden, creative and hands-on.

The author, anonymously named “frustrated teacher in Indiana,” said this:

Does anyone have any “wildly engaging lessons” for English 10 that also helps them pass these standardized tests? This is where I struggle. We have to meet certain criteria to ensure they pass their ECAs and none of the ECA is hands-on, innovative, creative, or interesting. Please help.

I totally get where Frustrated Teacher is coming from, and this is the frustrating part of the way the education system is set up.

We have teachers in classrooms doing amazing work as the foot soldiers, creating citizens that will guide our world into the future. Then, we have the ones at the top who aren’t familiar with a day in the life of a real, normal classroom (let alone an entire year of those days!). But they’re the ones that create “accountability” for students and teachers, and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.

It can completely sap the joy out of education.

I know teachers that, when it comes to selecting classes to teach, will lean toward classes that don’t have standardized tests tied to them even if they aren’t their least favorite classes to teach. They’re willing to forego what they’re passionate about to alleviate the stress and anxiety that comes with the assessment piece.

There’s something seriously wrong with all of this.

So, what do we do with Frustrated Teacher’s situation? He/she teaches English 10, and there’s a high-stakes end of course assessment to prepare for. The test isn’t different, innovative, creative, tech-laden or hands-on. How do we deal with that disconnect?

Just because the test is boring doesn’t mean that our class has to be.

Let’s take the “textbook” way many teachers prepare students for a test like that:

  • Lectures that are overfilled with content
  • Drill-and-kill worksheets
  • Lots of passive sitting

After teaching that way for several years, here’s the conclusion I came to:

Sometimes, this method of teaching is just as effective as doing nothing.

When students mentally check out of lectures, they’re not paying attention. They might as well not be there at all.

When students do drill-and-kill worksheets, they’re often finding the fastest way of getting through them without any meaningful learning that will make the content stick.

When students sit passively too long, neuroscience tells us that their brains become sedentary, too, and retention falls off.

Basically, by making our classes as boring as those tests, we’re not setting students up to succeed.

I know. I would give my boring grammar lectures in my Spanish classes and a day or two later, my students would act like they’d never seen that content before. I graded more half-hearted, rushed worksheets than I can count, and I had to wake up too many students slumped over in their desks.

I was teaching, but they weren’t learning.

Some people say they can’t afford to make their classes different, innovative, creative, tech-laden and/or hands-on. 

I say, I can’t afford not to.

Something as simple as a quick activity from GoNoodle activates students’ brains when things get monotonous. Moving class to a different location or mixing up seating can make things different.

In my classes, a few years ago, I knew my students were really into Vines (those six-second video clips that loop). We recorded short videos to illustrate vocabulary terms and showed them to the class. It was tech-laden: students recorded videos. It was innovative: I hadn’t tried it before and wanted something new. And students got to demonstrate their creativity.

If I had given them a worksheet to practice that vocabulary, it wouldn’t stick like that.

Think of all of the classes you took when you were a student. Then, think of what really stuck with you, what you really remember.

We can’t teach the exciting, memorable, mind-blowing lessons in class every day. But we can sometimes. And we can push our standard daily lessons a little in that direction.

I think Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a PIRATE,” said it best on this topic.

At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids. My decision was made a long time ago. I teach kids.

The funny thing about that is this: when you focus on teaching students instead of teaching to the test, often your students’ test scores improve.

[reminder]What’s your take on this disconnect, between preparing students for standardized tests and creating engaging lessons? How do you manage it?[/reminder]

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  • Carrie says:

    I disagree with the whole idea of ditching that textbook, simply because when that happens, most teachers just pick up another resource that is not as readily available. With a well-planned lesson or unit activity, you can use the textbook along with other resources. Again, the key is planning.

  • […] Engaging classes vs. test prep: Can we have both? | Ditch That Textbook […]

  • Madeline says:

    I LOVE ditching the book, but I know the struggle when it comes to test prep. My babies are 3rd graders, so it’s their first year taking the test. We have to practice multiple choice on paper because if they’ve never seen it, they’ll freak out! (Test makers forget they’re 8.) We also have to practice sitting before testing because we are never, ever sitting in regular class. SO, we make it a MISSION! I cut up test prep worksheets and tape them all over the classroom or the school. They still have to write on them and bubble, but they get to go find them! Then we turn our desks into cars on a loooonnngggg road trip and practice “seeing sights” while we are “celebrating” our learning. It’s all about re-purporsing the terrible into something more fun. 🙂

    • Matt Miller says:

      Madeline, it sounds like you’re doing great with “ditching the textbook” when it comes to test prep! I love the cut up questions around the room and making the desks into cars. THIS is exactly how it should be done! Keep up the great work! 🙂

  • Jenny says:

    I agree with this philosophy. I still teach some of Latin with the grammar approach, but have been trying new methods. For example, we used he card over the head-student act out word method this past week, and students really thrived. I am so grateful for all this help. Since going to iPads instead of book, we are trying new things. My Latin III class even made iMovies on the fall of Rome. Thanks!!!!!

  • Grace says:

    I agree 100%. I don’t do the drill and kill because it kills me too. I use to be that frustrated teacher until I decided that I did not want to feel that way. Now in my reading class I engage my students in meaningful, engaging book talks. My 3rd graders can’t wait to read the next chapter, and I have definitely seen a big difference in how they look at reading now.

  • HSELARnewbie says:

    As a veteran teacher, yet new to to teaching high school English I, which in our state is a high stakes tested subject, I have struggled with this as well. However, I have found the authentic reading and writing do give the students the skills they need for the tests. Periodically, I will teach them how the skills we have learned as readers and writers transfer to that “dreaded multiple choice test.” I make a concentrated effort to teach them test strategies, but it just takes a few minutes. We spend most of our time doing real world work. I agree, lecturing doesn’t work. Some kids like it because it means they can check out and not do anything.

  • Inger C says:

    An engaged student who is not “taught to the test” will invariably do better than a disengaged, disinterested student who is only given “test prep”. Do better in life and in further studies, that is. It take a HUGE leap of faith to make this preaching your practice but if you really believe in having innovative, interesting lessons (that at least hit somewhere near your standards) your students will do well on testing because they truly understand the material. It really is taking a step out of the traditional airplane and hoping that your students packed your parachute correctly. You gotta believe!!

  • Cheryl Crockett says:

    I loved reading this article and totally agree with every word. It pains me to hear teachers say, “Kids don’t have fun in school anymore” or “They’ve taken the fun out of teaching”. My comment is “Don’t let that happen! THEY can’t take that from you. You can only let them do that”. Don’t let them! The kids deserve more. We deserve more.

  • Amy says:

    I just had this conversation with a mentor of mine this week! Here in Indiana, if we view the ‘test’ as the target, we are failing our kids. (And the target is always moving in our state!) We must endeavor to teach our students how to think critically and how to follow their passions to grow and learn…this can be accomplished by focusing on the standards, not the test. Should we throw in some test prep? Absolutely, we want our students to be comfortable with what is presented on the test, but it should not be the focus.

  • Mandi says:

    I teach using Standards Based Grading in Algebra 1. I have fun and engaging projects for students that allow them to stretch their thinking and I evaluate them based on the standards. I assess these standards in multiple ways which helps prepare them for the high stakes test we take at the end of course. It’s not perfect but it’s a good compromise.

  • Rob Bobeda says:

    I believe we CAN do both. I believe the key is to use what we know about the standardized tests and infuse bits and pieces into our assessments of our students.
    Examples: After completing a fun, energetic, hands on lesson in science have the students create their own multiple choice questions analyzing their findings in the same format they might see on a standardized test.
    In English 10, assess the students with mini timed quizzes or exit slips in small chunks to build up their endurance for the amount of reading and the time constraints they will encounter on their tests.
    Bottom line is it is up to us as educators to play with the cards we are dealt. We can either complain about it and have our students feed off of that negative energy or we can approach it with a creative and positive mindset to make the best of it for our students’ sake.
    Thanks for reading!
    -Rob Bobeda
    High School Administrator

  • Heather Giles says:

    At the end of a course, I like to ask my Spanish students to name something they completed that they are proud of… nobody EVER says “That worksheet on present tense verbs” or “that quiz on house vocabulary” because we build instruction around the big question, “So how does what we are learning/doing play out in the real world?” As much as we have to pay attention to the tests, our greater obligation is to prepare our students for the real world.

    There is much research to support the idea that reading and discussing builds deeper knowledge of vocabulary than teaching random lists of words out of context. Yet, we continue to lecture and kill n’drill, then assure ourselves that we have “covered” the material. The problem is that this is only good (i.e. more efficient) for the teacher. Teaching students to think critically through a process is messy, requires multiple leaps of faith in their abilities to carry out a process independently, and you simply can’t plan for what the class will be doing on Day 27. None of those things are traditionally heralded as hallmarks of good instruction! However, if teachers relinquish some control, focus on transferable skills, and facilitate personal connections in learning, students’ knowledge will carry over to numerous contexts AND it will be meaningful.

  • Christy Cate says:

    Thanks, Matt! I know several teachers who feel the pain of “Frustrated”. I also 100% believe that innovative and engaging classrooms will outperform traditional approaches to the test.

  • Sara in SD says:

    As both a classroom teacher and instructional coach, one of the things I notice is that we are often reluctant to “give up” those favorite units of study – even though they don’t align to any of our standards. That would save many of us lots of time for more innovative, creative exploration of the things we are required to teach. My suggestion is always to – align it to your standards or give it up!

    Love your post, by the way!!

  • Vicky Tusken says:

    I could not agree more. For those if us who survived NCLB, we know teaching to the test does not work…and yet, with teacher evaluation attached to student growth and high-stakes state assessments attached to Federal dollars, teachers are scared to death to step out and shift their focus to the students and not the test. In our district, we are utilizing our instructional coaches to support teachers with strategies and tech PD to create those engaging lessons.

  • Cindy says:

    I love the Vine idea!!!! Tweeting it now. I think that you have to teach kids first. Extra effort and out of the box ideas are always worth it; it is what help hooks them. Yesterday I was in a classroom and saw students literally “lean in” when the teacher switched to an activity involving technology. I thought, “We need to plan so that our kids lean into learning everyday!” As always, I love your post. Thanks for sharing.

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