This article was written by Christine Fiorentino — a middle school ELA teacher for almost 10 years now. In her classroom, there's never, EVER a dull moment, and she wouldn't want it any other way! She strives to make learning fun, inspiring, and memorable. She is also the owner of Nosh - a vegan pudding company.
“I am so excited for test prep, it’s so fun!” said no teacher, ever.
In my almost ten years of being in the classroom, I’ve yet to hear one teacher sound eager, excited, or relaxed about the process of preparing for state-mandated testing. These days, the pressure and anxiety of district-wide testing have gotten even more intense, and frankly, I think we can all agree it sucks! The worst part about this cursed test prep? The creativity and FUN are sooooo easily sucked from our classrooms. As a result, no matter how hard we may try to avoid it, we end up teaching to the test. Ultimately, as a result of this, a lot of our lessons are boring, disengaging and completely unmemorable for everyone involved. YUCK!
Didn’t a lot of us get into this profession in the first place because it provides a lot of opportunities for us to be creative, inventive, and embrace the upbeat, vibrant, whimsical spirit of the kids? While there may not be a way for us to avoid test prep, but luckily, there are ideas below to keep it appealing and energized! These ideas aren’t just to maintain the sanity and optimism of our students, but in order to maintain our own, as well! Check out these ideas for keeping test prep interesting…
1. Mood & Tone with Movie Trailers
We all know that pretty much any movie trailer ever made can be found and viewed on YouTube. What many people don’t know is that YouTube is also bursting with wildly impressive movie trailer remakes! These new versions have been created to portray totally different moods and tones with different music and clips from the same exact movie. Hand out some mood and tone guide sheets as a tool to guide them, and have them jot down the moods and tones of the original, and then the remakes. This makes for a great comparing and contrasting activity, as well! Viewing firsthand just how differently you can portray mood and tone with the EXACT same movie, simply by using different clips, captions, and tunes is really intriguing to students. It helps them to understand the power of mood and tone, and how they possess the power to do the same in their own writing. Seriously, you haven’t felt fear until you’ve seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory portrayed as a horror movie.
2. Gallery Walks
Just like visiting a museum, but done in the confines of your very own classroom, gallery walks allow students to get up, socialize constructively, keep the blood pumping, and move around the room in order to complete an activity. After reading a passage, break the class into groups, where they will discuss and analyze major themes presented throughout the text. Next, instruct groups to draw lines in order to create four equal squares on one jumbo sticky note. Then, instruct them to state a theme in each square and highlight each in a different shade of highlighter. Using small sticky notes, color-coded to match the highlighters, state evidence from the passage to support each theme on the board. After they have finished, allow the groups to circulate the room and check out the work other classmates have completed, as well. Take it up a notch and get their competitive spirits up by setting a timer, making it a race, and providing the winning group with a prize! They’ll be timed for testing, so they may as well practice time management skills as often as possible!
3. Music & Lyrics
Students don’t always realize it, but music is poetry. Once you explain this and they have their “OMG. Mind. BLOWN.” moment, try differentiating your lessons a bit. Ditch some of the boring old poems that this generation has absolutely no connection to. Instead, mix in some music to practice working with analyzing phrases, translating the literal meanings of figurative language, creating narratives or storyboards based around the story elements described and portrayed in the song. Play the music, provide them with a copy of the lyrics, and let them jam out. This is the type of lesson they’ll never forget because a) you look sort of cool, and b) they will never hear music lyrics quite the same way again. Some good tunes for the classroom? Skyscraper by Demi Lovato, Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus, Lose Yourself by Eminem, Diamonds by Rihanna, and Grenade by Bruno Mars. There are so many – these are just some of my favs, but the sky’s the limit!
(TEACHER TIP: A lot of songs, including some listed above, contain curse words, so be sure to find the clean versions, listen to the songs first, and type up the lyrics yourself to avoid any potential issues.)
4. Vocabulary and Vision Boards
Whether it’s draining or motivating, remember that a lot of test prep is mental. Perspective is key. Let’s inspire students to set goals and be confident. The more confident and prepared they feel, the more likely they are to perform well when test time arrives. Vision boards are really motivating and inspiring projects that can also become educational by tying in skills learned in the classroom. Have students read through different magazines, newspapers (or other texts you may have around and are willing to have sliced apart with scissors), in order to cut out high-level vocabulary words and adjectives that speak to them positively, as they prepare for upcoming tests. Then, have them take their clippings and glue them on to large sheets of paper to create personal vision boards. Skills covered include stating claims, pulling evidence, researching texts, actively reading, and implementing vocabulary. Let them get creative and have fun with art materials like glue, glitter, colors, ribbon, tissue paper, and more!
5. Inferences with Doritos Commercials
Doritos always comes through during the Super Bowl with hysterical commercials. Very often, the course of events in these commercials involves some sort of animal, and that animal is typically engaging in some sort of behavior with a human. The end goal is usually for them to get their hands (or paws, or hooves) on some Doritos. From dogs to goats, to bears, these commercials are rich with not only humor but many opportunities to practice making inferences, as well! Have students view the commercials once first, and then as you show it a second time, instruct students to jot down the messages being sent by the animals in the commercials. Whether it’s through eye contact, physical behavior, or another observation, students will learn to read between the lines by analyzing the silly motives of the mischievous animals in these commercials.
6. Visual Aids
A lot of the time, stuff around the classroom is displayed for a pretty show, rather than doubling its purpose as something useful and interactive. It’s not intentional and it’s no one’s “fault.” We’re busy and constantly running around to get things done. Let’s flip the script on visual aids. Instead of viewing them as an annoying burden and as things that make our classrooms just LOOK cool, let’s use visual aids around the room to make our lives easier, and our hard work more effective! Try switching out some of those funny posters for some visual aids the kids can get up and use. We aren’t working with robots. What we ARE doing is a pro juggling act, working with 30 or so individual people every day. Plans change, some lessons don’t quite click, some skills take longer to implement than others, people move at different paces, and that’s ok! Take a deep breath and have some interactive assistants ready to help out around the room. Some ideas to get you started? Interactive word walls where students can post words they’ve learned or want to know, a cross-curricular word board where students can pin up words they’ve learned that applied to a different content area, a “this-not-that” board where students can provide higher level words for frequently used terms (like said and happy), a library with a Reading Café reading log where students can document the books they’ve read this year and feel proud, a Twitter wall where you can pose a question and they can respond back to you, and poetry corner with poems and music lyrics for students to kick back and analyze some of their favorite songs. The limits are endless! We’re creators, so use your walls to get creative and innovative!
7. Instagram Wall
This is the age of social media, and it’s only going to become more significant as time goes on! Don’t lock it out of your classroom. Rather, welcome it in, on your own terms. Create an Instagram Wall that will unite the class as teammates who motivates one another. Allow students to bring in photos, clips, inspirational quotes, or things that they connect to active reading and writing skills, and invite them to post them up on your Instagram Wall! Require them to post their piece with a caption that must contain no less than three vocabulary terms and two transition phrases they’ve learned to tie into their writing throughout the year. The colors, vibrancy, inspiration, and individual touches will make them feel proud, confident, and relaxed in the high stress, intense test prep setting.
8. Have a Realistic Schedule and Routine
Yes, we’re on a timeline and meeting a deadline. But the worst thing you can do, for both you and your students, is to burn out. If you’ve been working hard, making learning memorable and meaningful, creating engaging and effective lessons, and covering the skills necessary to succeed when testing arrives, then guess what? Your students are going to be FINE! No - better than fine - they will excel this year! Yes, have a schedule, a daily routine for test prep, and a plan for approaching test time, because kids thrive on routine and structure. However, don’t treat this time like you’re starting from scratch. It’s just the final stretch and time to kick things up a notch. You’ve been kicking their booties into gear, and it began back in September, on the first day of school, not just yesterday. Be sure to stop and remind yourself of this when you’re in that crunch time period leading up to the big show. You did GOOD! It’s all good! They are going to make your proud, and they are going to feel proud, too.
9. Contests & Prizes
Similar to #10 on the list, everything is kicked up naturally when competition gets tied into the activity. Challenge your students and foster their developing time management skills, by timing activities with a countdown and a goal. Have a stopwatch up on your projector screen while they work so they can get used to keeping their eye on the time, and encourage them to create quality work within short amounts of time. It will be just like a real test environment, but because it’s entertaining now that a contest is involved, they won’t even realize they’re sharpening their time management skills. Make it fun and make it competitive! Students who complete QUALITY work within the time provided receive prizes! Whether it’s candy, homework passes, bonus points on a test, chips, a pencil, an eraser, or a crown, prizes always pump up the energy in the classroom – even when it’s time to prep for the test!
I think anyone would agree that EVERYTHING is better when food is involved. Have a lunchtime “hangout” session with your students. Invite them to bring snacks and beverages, and casually discuss any skills or strategies they may be struggling with or feeling intimated by. By keeping things laid back, their stress over the test will decrease, leaving them feeling more confident, prepared, and comfortable. If you keep it chill, that vibe will trickle down to your students.
I bring you these ideas in the spirit of testing season, just in time for test prep time, and in an effort to let you know you’re not alone. Wherever you are, whatever you teach, whichever grade you spend your days with, let us join together to transform our test prep boot camps into a meaningful and entertaining experience for our students this year! Not just for the kids, but for ourselves, as well. Let’s vow to keep learning fun, memorable, and meaningful. We know better than anyone that at the end of the day, that’s what really matters in a highly effective, comfortable, safe, and engaging classroom.
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