Seth’s Story

Well, it’s that time again. It is the time of year when pencils are sharpened and heart rates quicken. It is standardized testing season. Every year I am continually amazed at how little my students know about test-taking. I think that as teachers, we are – by and large – good test takers and we don’t really know how we got to be that way. I think we assume that our students come to us each year having been instructed in the ways of testing and must know the basic test-taking skills that will improve their scores.

This is not the case. Prime example: my student – we’ll call him Seth – from several years ago, a 7th grader, came to me just weeks before the state standardized test was to be administrated. It was close enough to the test date that I had already done my cursory test-prep spiel covering the bare minimum of testing skills (i.e. fill out the bubble in pencil, not pen; fill out the bubble completely, not with scribbles, etc.), so he had missed those lessons. So the big day comes and my students are sitting quietly, answering the questions and I’m walking around – because that’s what we do, right? We never sit at our desks… – and monitoring everyone. I notice that Seth is reading diligently and using one of the great test-taking strategies, marking the text. There are meaningful marks on the passages, on the questions and answer choices…I’m ecstatic. I see his bubble sheet tucked up underneath the test booklet; great job, Seth! I said to myself, keep your answers hidden from your neighbors! So time passes and about 5 minutes before the end of the test I notice that Seth has finished and his booklet is closed and his answer sheet is on top of his booklet. His head is down. I walked over and looked at the answer sheet. It is blank. I shook my head in disbelief! I had seen him working! I know how he spent the last hour-or-whatever! How on Earth is his answer sheet blank!? I nudged Seth and he looked up at me. “Where are all your answers?” I asked him quietly. “What do you mean, Miss?” he was confused. “Your answers? I saw you working, but your answer sheet is blank.” “Oh, I marked my answers in the book.”

You marked your answers in the book. How is it possible that you have made it to 7th grade and don’t know that your answers have to go on the bubble sheet?! Worse, why in the world do you think I gave you the bubble sheet in the first place?! And were you not listening to me read the instructions that said “Mark your answers on the answer sheet; answers marked in the test booklet will not be scored?” Thank goodness I’ve caught this with 5 minutes left. I instructed Seth to copy his answers over onto the bubble sheet, and disaster was averted. This situation, however, made me realize that I needed a more systematic approach to test-prep instruction, and that it needed to go up until the day of the test so I could catch as many students as possible.

I call it my “Bubble Boot Camp.” I take students through everything as simple as how to bubble (because you would be amazed at how many kids make it to high school and don’t know how to bubble properly) to legitimate test-taking strategies to improve performance. Every year, I see this instruction pay off. Does every kid pass and make national news headlines? Of course not. But I do see improvements, and the students tell me that it helps them, so that’s enough for me.

My test-prep kit can be found here

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Taking Over the School

Have you ever wanted to be “that teacher” who had their students’ work plastered all over the school? Yeah, that was me, too. I wanted my students’ work to be seen by everyone, but it seemed a little odd to post random 7th grade math assignments down in the 6th grade hallway. So I thought about it and came up with something that no one would have a problem with if it encroached on their wall space: a project!

I waited until we came to the scientific notation unit and then I assigned my “scale model” project. I overlapped this with the science class’s unit on the solar system and came up with the “Scale Model of the Solar System” project. The kids had to do all the research on the planets and then build a scale model of the solar system. They did it in pairs, because it was a lot of work.

The results were amazing! I was lucky enough to teach at a K-8 school, so by the end of the project, we had Pluto (this was before Pluto was demoted to non-planet status) down near the Kindergarten rooms with the suns all in the media center. The kids loved measuring the distances from the sun and displaying their work all over the school. The project took about 2 weeks and the kids really understood scientific notation because they had to do so many conversions for all the data. They also knew their solar system inside and out.

It turned out to be a great way for them to learn and be excited about it.

scale model solar system

Scale Model of the Solar System

There Is No “I” in Team

I was very fortunate to work, at one time, in a school where team-teaching was done, and done well. My 7th grade team was very tight and we often collaborated on units and discipline. One of the things we did was send students to time out in each other’s rooms. Everyone sent their kids to me. None of the kids wanted to go to my room because my room was always working (not saying that there wasn’t work going on in other rooms, but mine, apparently, was run with an iron fist). This cooperation between teachers made discipline much more effective. We all had the same rules and expectations. If a student got sent to time out, they filled out a reflection sheet. When they were done, they handed it in to the time-out teacher and then went back to their original classroom. If they were disruptive in the time-out room or refused to do the reflection sheet, the teacher would call the office and have them removed from class (we were able to do this because we’d done 2 levels of “in-house” discipline: one in the classroom and one through a change-of-venue). This worked so well that the other teams adopted our reflection sheet and used it among themselves as well. Soon we were all swapping kids as needed, and the administration loved that we were being resourceful and keeping them out of it as much as possible. The reflection sheets took only 5-10 minutes to fill out, but that was enough time for the kids to get their head back on straight and regroup so they could go back to the classroom and be productive. If you’re on a team, consider reflection sheets for time out. If you aren’t fortunate enough to teach at a team-teaching school, make friends with your neighbors. Ask the administration if time-outs to other rooms are permissible (they aren’t at some schools), and if they are, use them. It’s a really great way to give your students some space if they need it and keep you from losing your cool. Plus, it provides you with a record of your disciplinary course.

reflection sheet kit

Reflection Sheet Kit

…Phone Home…

I loved Friday afternoons. This might be crazy, but I loved them because that was the time I would set aside to call parents of misbehaving students. The kids knew I called home on Fridays and they knew they were likely to get grounded for the weekend, so that’s why I called on Friday afternoons. It wasn’t easy, though. I usually had anywhere from 5 to 15 calls to make. Sometimes it would take me over an hour to get them all done. But it was so worth it (and not just because I knew I was ruining someone’s weekend…) because I kept behavior issues under wraps. It was also important for my paper trail. The kids whose parents I spoke with shaped up quickly, but the students whose parents I (routinely) couldn’t get in touch with had no reason to change. It was for these kids that I called home every Friday (or every other Friday at least). I had to document that I was making a good-faith effort to get in touch with the family. The administration wasn’t going to support my referral on a kid that I hadn’t called home for. It was so hard to keep track of all the calls, though. When did I call? Who did I talk to? Did I leave a message? Did anyone call me back? Did I try more than one number? Why did I even need to call? It was a nightmare. I realized I had to come up with an organized way to log all the calls I was doing in order to make them as useful as possible. After creating and using a variety of forms, and my life got easier. I was able to get my Friday phone blasts done in less time, and the administration was always impressed with my paper trail. Most of all, the behavior problems in my classes stayed at a minimum. Kids knew I would call home and then they would get a referral. It deterred most students from causing problems, and for those it didn’t, they ended up in ISS or OSS. Calling parents is one of the most important steps a teacher can take to keep decorum in their classes. Early in the year, I would have my cell phone out and ready to go, and that “one kid” who thought s/he was going to be a smart-ass and pull something the very first week was warned (which, of course, did no good) and then I turned on my phone and called home. Right there. In the middle of class. If I was feeling particularly vicious, I would turn it on speaker. Then all the kids knew. It spread like a disease. Mrs. Moody calls home. She means it. You better not piss her off.

So call home. Call often. Make sure your kids know you care enough to get all up in their business. And keep track of your calls. It will be worth it in the end.

parent contact kit

Parent Contact Kit

Remembering How We Learned

Most learning is gradual. It is authentic. Yes, there are “ah-ha” moments, but by-and-large, we learn through a sort of osmosis. This struck me one day while I was teaching my 7th grade math class. I had a student, we’ll call him Fernando, who was struggling with multi-digit subtraction. In 7th grade. I know, right? I couldn’t understand how he had made it to me without mastering this skill. I had tried and tried to teach him how to subtract, but he just wasn’t getting it. I then tried asking myself how I learned to subtract; maybe my own experience would help me communicate it to him. I realized suddenly that I didn’t remember learning how to subtract. It was like I’d always been able to do it. I started searching for other concepts and found most of them to be the same way. How was I supposed to teach a skill I didn’t remember learning myself?

I ran into similar problems when I switched over to teaching Language Arts. All the students in my 7th grade classes were required to write a research paper for their science class. I wanted to be a part of that process (yay for cross-curricular teaching!) so I solicited comments/questions from my students. I asked to see their products at each stage of the process. They were all required to have an outline for their paper. I knew how to write an outline; I knew of several ways to write an outline. Nothing prepared me for the dismal results that were my students’ outlines. None of them knew how to write an outline. How could they not know how to write an outline? It’s not hard; it’s not even that time-consuming. The research is the long, difficult part. I tried to remember how I learned to write an outline. I couldn’t. So I taught myself again. I sat down and laid out the fundamental parts of an outline. I then put together an example and a lesson to teach students how to make an outline. The revised products my students showed me afterwards were amazing. It was like night and day.

The lesson here is that we often forget that kids don’t know what we’re teaching them. When we know how to do something, it’s hard to sympathize with the roadblocks our students face. Sitting down and forcing yourself to go through a process step-by-step can help you get better results.

Sample outline for research paper

Research Paper Outline