Why I Decided to Teach Certain Math Skills in My English Classes

As the third quarter comes to an end for many schools, I wanted to take the time to share why I, as an English teacher, spent time showing my students a very specific math skill: calculating GPA. I did this when I was teaching 9th & 10th grade English, although I also did a modified version of it this year with my 7th grade math students. However, middle school transcripts aren’t as focused on GPA – at least not in my district – so it depends on your circumstances whether or not you’d want to do this as a middle school teacher.

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As a non-math content area teacher, I had to really weigh the pros and cons of taking an entire class period to go over a math skill. All our curriculums are over-packed. We don’t have days to “waste.” Was I ready to give up a day of curriculum to teach a skill that wasn’t directly related to my own curriculum and standards? Well, honestly, the first time I did this, I hadn’t intended to take an entire class period. My goal was to put up the grade calculation chart to show my students how their 3 grades (quarter 3, quarter 4, and final exam) worked together to get their final semester grade. That was only supposed to take maybe 10-15 minutes. I knew I could spare that. I knew I had to. But, as the conversation took a turn to GPA and how that is calculated and how “bad” one grade can be for a GPA, it didn’t take long to figure out that my students had zero idea how to calculate their own GPA.

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This was a serious problem since I worked with freshman. Those of you who work with underclassmen are well aware of the thought process these students have. So many of them don’t think their grades matter. They don’t realize the damage a bad grade in 9th or 10th grade can do to a GPA. They don’t understand that they will spend the rest of their high school career fighting to repair a GPA that has been devastated by a “C” or, heaven forbid, a “D.” Let’s not even talk about the “F”s. When I tried to quickly explain the GPA calculations, my students immediately took an interest. They demanded I slow down so they could take notes. Seriously, I had students who rarely paid any attention to a single word I said and when I started talking about their GPA they were like, “Woah, woah, woah, Miss! Slow down!” They cared about this. What shocked me was not so much that my students didn’t know how a GPA was calculated – after all, it would be unlikely that they would have learned that in middle school, given the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on GPAs in middle school – it was that their math teachers hadn’t taught them this when they started high school.

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I realize now that I shouldn’t have been surprised. As teachers, we assume a heck of a lot of knowledge for our students. We assume they just know things because we know them. We forget how we learned. It doesn’t occur to us to teach things we ourselves know and/or expect our students to know. And I’m not talking about curriculum concepts, I’m talking about this type of stuff: GPA calculation, test-taking techniques , how to bubble a freaking Scantron sheet correctly. So I taught them how to calculate their GPA. The first time, I had to fly by the seat of my pants. I had to guess how much our district weighted honors and AP classes. I let them know that my assumptions could be wrong and they should do their own research to figure out how their specific class load would work out. But the next time, I was prepared. I did my research and found the district’s weighting system and how GPA was calculated. I budgeted a full class period for it, and it paid off. And my students were enthralled and thankful. It honestly changed a lot of perspectives. I know a lot of my students changed their attitudes towards their effort in classes because of this lesson. I know because they told me themselves. I saw some students improve their efforts in my class, and I know other teachers saw improvements in theirs. They might not have known why, but the improvements were there.

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You might think that the kids who cared were only the college-bound ones. The kids who knew they had no shot might not care about anything except graduating. Why bother with trying to get “A”s and “B”s when all you need is a 2.0 to graduate? Or maybe they were planning to drop out; why should they care about a GPA as a freshman when they knew in just 2 years they’d be out of school anyway? Well, what I’ve noticed is that students who think they can’t control something often become apathetic towards it. If a student thinks a GPA is some sort of magical number over which they have no control and no influence, they have no reason to devote any time or energy towards caring about it. But, if you show a student – any student – that THEY control this GPA, it changes a lot. Really, this is true about many things for students. They don’t have a lot of control over things. Give them a little bit of control and it empowers them. It engages them. And that’s what this lesson did for my students – all of them, even the low-performing, unmotivated ones. It gave them the knowledge that THEY controlled their GPA. And that changed everything.

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Are You Testing Me? Part 2

As a classroom teacher, I was always looking for ways to effectively assess my students’ learning. I came up with some great ways to differentiate through product, but sometimes, I just had to use a traditional assessment. I always thought I was pretty good at creating those assessments, but once I got my current job working for Assessment and Accountability, I realized I’d been doing lots of things that are not best practices when it comes to traditional assessments. I’ve decided to share some biggies with you in the hopes that your classroom assessments can be more valid, effective, and help you inform your instruction.

  1. Only ask one question per item (for multiple-choice items; obviously, extended response items can ask multiple questions). If you need to break it apart into two items, then do that. For example, “Who was the first President of the United States and when was he elected?” is inappropriate because it asks two things in one item.
  2. Do NOT use “all of the above” as an answer choice. This decreases the discrimination value of the item because it essentially turns the question into a 3-choice question instead of a 4 or 5-choice question. You can use “none of the above,” but use it sparingly. Additionally, use questions with “not” and “except” sparingly. These tend to confuse students and you don’t really learn if they misunderstand the concept or your wording of the question. And when you do use “not” or “except” in a question, you should capitalize and bold it so it stands out to students. (Side note: you can capitalize and bold words like “most,” “least,” and “best” if you like.)
  3. Keep in mind that your students take roughly double or triple the amount of time to answer a question as you do. For example, if you create a quiz and take it yourself and it took you 10 minutes, it will take your students between 20-30 minutes. Obviously, if you have students with special needs (ESE, ESOL, etc.), this will increase the time even more. Have reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations for your students.
  4. Be prepared to throw out poorly performing items. If more than half your students get a question wrong, chances are, there is an issue with the item. That being said, if more than half your items end up being missed by more than half your students, that’s a pretty stellar indication that a) they did not comprehend the material at mastery level and/or b) the questions had major problems in construction. Your options: throw the test out or curve it (and by “curve” I mean use a scale to norm the distribution of grades). Creating a bad test doesn’t make you a bad teacher, it just means you need more practice and guidance in test creation.
  5. Base your items on instructional objectives and/or standards. Don’t test trivial knowledge. Make sure you are assessing things that matter in terms of the scope and sequence of your course. The BEST option is to create the assessment BEFORE you teach the lesson/unit/concept. Begin with the end in mind. Your assessment is like a blueprint for your lesson. It’s the objectives for what you’re teaching. You want the students to master X, Y, Z, so you create an assessment to measure their mastery of X, Y, Z, and then you teach X, Y, Z. Finally, you assess the students with the assessment. It’s not “teaching to the test,” it’s called “backwards design” and it’s a best practice.

Teachers are Heroes!

It’s true, teachers really are heroes! Teachers are leaders, nurses, parents, psychologists, social workers, friends, confidants, and so much more. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to check out Teachers Pay Teachers, it has arrived! Today (only for a few more hours!) everything on the site – in every single store! – is at least 10% off! My store has everything 28% off! That’s right! If you’ve been eyeing that perfect lesson, activity, or resource, now is the time to stop by and stock up! There probably won’t be another sale until my birthday (that’s all the way in April, people!), so get test prep, Common Core and LAFS resources, math lessons, writing resources, reading activities, and so much more! And don’t forget, there’s a TON of free stuff on the site, too – not just my store, but hundreds – thousands (literally, there are over 70K stores on TpT!) – of stores with something for everyone. So no matter what or you teach – in a classroom K-12, early childhood, college, or even homeschool, there is something for you! Head on over and check it out!

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Get your teaching resources while the getting is good!

Testing Season!

It’s that time of year – testing season is upon us. I know that in Florida, the season starts with the Writing assessment and then moves on to the state Reading and Math assessments, and then finally the End of Course assessments and semester exams. With so many states (Florida included) tying teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests, it’s to every teacher’s advantage to make sure their students perform at the highest level on these spring assessments.

I happen to be an exceptionally good test taker. I’m not sure how that came about – I don’t remember anyone sitting down and teaching me about test-taking. I know I bought the common AP study guides and ACT/SAT prep materials, so I suppose I learned lots of it there, but even as a young child in elementary and middle school, I just seemed to have a knack for test-taking. I guess that’s why I like my current job so much (testing coordinator for a large school district – I work on all the district exams). Anyway, if I’m a GOOD test taker and I don’t know how I got there, then it should come as little surprise that POOR test takers don’t have any idea how to improve. And I would say that more students than not are in the category of at least “not good,” if not “poor” test takers. There are many reasons that students do not perform to their highest ability on standardized tests. Among these are test anxiety and just not understanding basic test-taking strategies. Basic test-taking strategies are not instinctual. In fact, many basic test-taking strategies go against instinct. The point is, they must be TAUGHT. This is why companies make millions of dollars offering test-prep courses and publishing test-prep materials. But why not make these basic strategies available to ALL your students, especially those who cannot afford professional prep?

Enter my standardized testing preparation kit. This kit has 12 printable classroom mini-posters of basic multiple choice/standardized test-taking strategies, along with how to instruct students in these strategies. It also includes a study guide for students, applicable for all types of assessments! I used this every year as part of what I termed my “bubble boot camp” and had incredible success. I had students (multiple ones, every year) jump up 2 achievement levels simply by implementing these basic test-taking strategies. This kit will not only benefit students in your classes, but will help them in other areas, too. It is applicable for students at ANY level and in ANY subject. I know February may seem like a bit early to be talking about the state tests, but they are right around the corner, and if you start now, you can get through all 12 tips in time for students to internalize them and apply them on all the tests they will be taking this spring.

This kit will be MOST beneficial to your low-achieving or under-achieving students – those “bottom quartile” kids who shut down after the first question and “Christmas tree” the entire test. However, this will also benefit your high-achieving students by giving them tools to slow down and check their work, increasing their performance as well. This truly is a must-have resource for every teacher. You owe it to your students to give them a basic crash-course in test prep. And I know – I KNOW – what you’re thinking! My students already know this stuff, I teach juniors (or seniors!) and they’ve been testing since they were in first grade! Surely they know this stuff! But they don’t. THEY DON’T. I’m telling you, I had seniors who couldn’t bubble correctly to save their lives. I had secondary students who honestly – HONESTLY – did not know they had to put their answers on the Scantron answer sheet and just marked them in their booklet. I swear to you, the tips and strategies in this kit are things that you THINK students know – that they SHOULD know – but they don’t. Not all of them. I promise you that if you have never done a basic test-taking strategies instruction workshop with your students, they will benefit from this. My students did.

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Give your students their best chance!

Be Prompt; Be Prepared

I know I feel this way and I am getting the feeling that so many other teachers are feeling similarly: These new standards and unknown state assessments make us feel like we’re in a ship in a storm without a map. Or a captain. Or maybe even the ship. Whether you think it’s ethical or not (or just somewhere in the gray area), test-prep is a huge industry. Barron’s makes a gazillion dollars a year on AP prep. There is ACT and SAT prep materials. Kaplan charges people hundreds of dollars to prep for major tests at the post-secondary level (and below). State tests, in the past, have had a variety of test-prep materials. Probably the most-used (most-valuable, etc.) are the released tests. You get old versions of the assessments and you give them to your students to practice. Makes sense, right? I mean, that’s how kids study for and pass the AP tests. Many states even had targeted assessment resources – workbooks with practice items, CD-ROMS with practice tools, even whole websites with practice for students across the grades.

But what happens when the tests change? And not just a little change, either, but a change so significant and monumental that there simply aren’t any really good ways to institute formal test prep. Whether your state has adopted the PARCC, Smarter Balance, FSA (for Florida), or some other new tool to assess the CCSS, you are probably desperately looking around for resources to help prepare your students for these exams. I mean, really, all you know is that your students will be tested on how well they “master” the standards. But what does that really mean? Really? No one knows. Yes, PARCC has a nice site with a handful of sample items. Yes, FSA released item specs with context-less contextual sample questions (with no answers, I might add). And there is a sample test. But seriously, how helpful is all of that? Minimally. It’s better than nothing, yes, but it’s nowhere near what teachers need. Or what their students need. Don’t even get me started on the ambiguity of the standards themselves. The interpretations are far and wide, which makes it virtually impossible to know not only what will be asked, but how the assessments will ask it.

It’s frustrating. It’s beyond frustrating. Do I have all the answers? No. But I do work with the new standards every day (yes, I’m in Florida, and technically we have the LAFS, not the CCSS, but at the secondary [6-12] level, the LAFS are, for all intents and purposes, identical to the CCSS), and I work with people who get to go to all sorts of symposiums and trainings to learn about the new standards and rubrics. I don’t know exactly how the different companies are going to interpret and assess the standards, but I am certainly more familiar with the standards and their potential assessments than an average classroom teacher. Therefore, based on my own trainings and those I work with, I have created question stems for the standards grades 6-8 and the 9-10 and 11-12 standards. Each level (6-8) has over 200 question stems. My middle school documents are extraordinarily popular (and highly rated), and I have noticed that many teachers buy not just one level, but multiple levels of stems. In response, I have decided to bundle my 6-8 stems so teachers can get all 3 levels for a reduced price. I am also working on revising and bundling my high school stems documents, so if you haven’t become a follower of my store, go to the link and become a follower so you can get updates when I post new products.

I hope these stems are helpful for you in your classroom. You can use them as discussion starters, for traditional (multiple choice) assessments, or for extended responses. You can even give them to students and have them make their own questions from various literature. If you purchase the bundle (or any single stems documents), please be sure to review the product!

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CCSS Stem Bundle

And don’t forget to check back tomorrow for my football freebie since the Buckeyes showed Sparty who’s boss in the Big Ten!

Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3!

It’s that time of year again! Oh, who are we kidding? There is no “off” season for testing, anymore! Testing is year round! But, there is a special test date coming up that applies (mostly) to high school teachers…particularly 11th grade teachers. Yes, it’s that monster: the PSAT NMSQT! This year, the PSAT/NMSQT test will be administered on 2 days: October 15th (a Wednesday) and October 18th (a Saturday).

Why is the PSAT/NMSQT a big deal? Well, this test not only prepares students for what the SAT test (the most widely used college entrance exam in the country) will be like, but also qualifies them to be designated National Merit Semi-Finalists or Finalists. This designation alone could lead to them receiving a ‘free ride’ to the school of their choice. For instance, in my home state of Florida, National Merit Finalists receive free tuition, room, board and books to any of the 12 state universities here in FL, and that is on top of any other scholarships the University or local community might award the student. So, needless to say, the PSAT can be a very helpful test in many ways for college bound students! Many states pay for all their Juniors to take the test (if that student is enrolled in a public high school), but some (like FL) even pay for 10th graders (FL might even pay for 9th graders, I don’t remember) to take the test as well. While there are no high stakes scholarships riding on the outcome for 9th/10th graders, the practice is invaluable. Plus, some districts use those scores for progress monitoring and teacher evaluations. So it’s in everybody’s best interest for all students to do well on the test.

If you are doing any PSAT prep with your students, I wanted to let you know of an important resource in my TeachersPayTeachers store. A huge component of the PSAT is vocabulary. Test-prep courses have entire study guides devoted to vocabulary acquisition. (These are, indeed, helpful. Side note: I memorized hundreds of words/definitions for my GRE and it made a huge difference!) But simply memorizing lists of words can be daunting. Instead, over time, I have realized that what is most helpful in vocabulary acquisition is an understanding and knowledge of word parts. It’s the same school of thought that the Spelling Bee kids have. If you know the root/prefix/suffix of a word and its language of origin, you can get pretty darn close to spelling it right even if you’ve never heard the whole word before. That’s the same for PSAT vocabulary. If you teach students how to analyze words for their word parts, they can get pretty darn close to the meaning even if they’ve never seen the whole word before. Therefore, I have created a resource of 100 commonly used words on the PSAT to help students strengthen their understanding of prefixes, suffixes and roots. Students define the word, identify and define the prefix (if it exists), the root, and the suffix (if it exists). They also give 3 other words that use the same root. This improves their working vocabulary and gives them a better shot at PSAT success! And it’s cheap! It’s $0.50! So worth it…you could use it as homework, bell work, or even a sub plan. Head on over and check it out!

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PSAT Vocabulary Practice

PSAT Prep

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As a sister-tool to my PSAT prep, I have developed another product that has worked incredibly well in my classroom to help prepare students for these multiple choice tests. The test preparation in this product is much of the same information covered in prep classes that cost hundreds of dollars. This product features 12 mini-posters with testing strategies and information of how to teach these strategies to your students. This resource also features a study guide for students to help them study and prepare for any type of test or exam. Currently, this product is designed for no-penalty guessing standardized tests (like the ACT), but I am working on updating it to have a special section for guessing-penalty tests like the PSAT/NMSQT and SAT (although both are changing their policies, it hasn’t happened yet). If you buy the current version, you will receive the updated version for free once it’s done.

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Test Prep Kit

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Test-taking is a skill, and students need to be taught that skill and encouraged/allowed to practice that skill. Help your students help themselves by taking them through this test prep!

Happy testing!