Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stress-Free Test Prep

It's officially that time of year... I have put it off long enough... Time to prepare for our end of the year tests. If you know me at all, you know I am not a fan of standardized tests or the preparation that comes along with them.  I was amazed when I moved from New York to North Carolina almost two years ago. I can remember one school that I interviewed in... They were in complete test-prep boot camp. All of the teachers had camo-tees with catchy slogans, the students had just had a "test-prep rally," and all anyone could talk about were the upcoming End-of-Grade Tests. This was completely new to me.... I never once saw this in New York. When I accepted a job at my current school (not the one mentioned above), I vowed never to place that kind of emphasis on a few summative assessments at the end of the year, whether or not my performance as a teacher is evaluated using test scores. 

A part of me feels that if I have successfully taught my students everything they need to know, they will be equally successful when they test.But then again, no standardized test is designed to match the way I teach. My students never encounter a multiple choice question until this time of year. I am, like most of you out there, spend the year assessing with formative assessments and through authentic experiences. So, I have come to realize that I DO need to help them prepare by showing them how to use everything they have learned in order to answer the kinds of questions they will face on a standardized assessment.

Reading Test Talk in My Classroom
At my school, we teach "Test Talk." Glennon Doyle Melton and Amy H. Greene have written an excellent guide, Test Talk, that shows teachers how to embed test preparation into reader's workshop. 

The focus of my unit on Test Talk is not to teach anything new, rather help students recall everything they have already been taught and applying that knowledge to a new genre of reading- The Standardized Test! 

Beginning a Test Talk Unit
This week, I launched my Test Talk unit. Because North Carolina, like most states, is implementing new assessments based on the new Common Core State Standards, I launched a bit differently compared to last year. This idea actually came from a colleague of mine, an amazing teacher who has truly inspired me since I began teaching in North Carolina (Tarheel State Teacher). We began by looking at sample passages and questions that have been released for this year's test. As a class, we created a T-chart to track our noticings of the new test. One side we listed what we noticed and on the other side, we explained what this means for us. For example, one of my students noticed that most of the non-narrative passages lacked subtitles, but had numbers in place of them. This means that we will be required to determine what they should be, which ultimately is relying on our ability to identify main ideas.  Another student made a comment about the number of questions that ask us about the meanings of words or phrases (language questions). I got a kick out of the girl who raised her hand and says, "OH!.... Is that why we have spent so much time with on context clues and figurative language this year?" Another student even picked up on the fact that there are so many questions that require deeper thinking (inference, main idea, theme, etc...) and very few "right-there" questions. Just the fact that they picked up on all of that made me much more at ease about the test itself. I think they were much more at ease too, they realized that they were going to be tested on the very things we have been working on all year... Go figure!

Thinking About Genre and Predictable Questions

My Test Talk  unit is about reminding students all they already know about the elements of realistic fiction and teaching them ways that questions might be phrased that ask about these elements. It is also about helping students to see connections between genres, for example, reminding them to use all they know about story structures in fiction to identify important elements in fantasy. My work, then, will be to support students in reading passages and holding on to meaning, to review strategies students already know for each genre, to teach strategies to quickly identify genres, and to teach predictable question types for each. I organize my teaching around genres, teaching narrative structures, non-narrative (expository) structures, and poetry, coaching students to bring forward all they know, giving tips for identifying the genre, and teaching predictable questions for each genre.

Checkout posters I have created for Thinking About Genre. I use these when we talk about previewing test passages. The first thing students know to do is to identify genre. This will give them an idea of what to pay attention to. For example, if a student identifies a test as realistic fiction, he/she knows to pay attention to character, theme, and setting. If a student identifies a text as informational, things like structure, main idea, and author's purpose are key. 

Thinking About Types of Questions
I have found that determining question types can be very effective for some students. Strategies for multiple-choice questions differ depending on the type of question.
For example, for questions that ask about details in the passage, test-takers who have
the time and know-how to scan and find passages should go back to the section
being referenced to find the answer so they won’t be swayed by wrong answer choices that are especially tempting (and written to lure readers away from the right answer). But on main idea questions, test-takers should predict the answer based on
what they believe to be the main idea.

Checkout posters I have created to teach students about Main Idea, Detail, and Inference questions. Something I do with students is have them read a passages and write their own questions (with four choices). They love this and don't even realize they are working on their comprehension skills and their ability to identify question type.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Visual Thesaurus

Visual Thesaurus: Taking Word Study to the Next Level

The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words. Its innovative display encourages exploration and learning. You'll understand language in a powerful new way.

Say you have a meaning in mind, like "happy." The VT helps you find related words, from "cheerful" to "euphoric." The best part is the VT works like your brain, not a paper-bound book. You'll want to explore just to see what might happen. You'll discover -- and learn -- naturally and intuitively. You'll find the right word, write more descriptively, free associate -- and gain a more precise understanding of the English language.

Vocabulary Lesson to Kick Off Class Hunger Games Study

In order to maximize my instruction, I am using my word study time in a very unique way. I am using The Hunger Games as a read aloud to, not only to review fiction reading, but to teach vocabulary. The Hunger Games is a very complex text, but the series has captivated most of my class, and I was realizing that my students had a very literal understanding of Suzanne Collins’ amazing work of science fiction. I began noticing it was the vocabulary used that was the greatest obstacle. Without an understanding of the vocabulary, deep understanding of the complex themes, symbols, characters, etc... is impossible.

Here was the lesson I did today, using Visual Thesaurus, to introduce The Hunger Games:

As a class, we skimmed through the first chapter and identified words that would potentially pose problems. Here are the words we found:

Next, the students are tasked with trying to group the words into categories, using VisualThesaurus for help.

Once students have tried on their own, I pose three categories of my own and ask them to sort the words into the following: Competition, Deprivation, and Political Turmoil. This will indirectly introduce them to some of the major themes of the novel, therefore making them esier to identify once the students begin reading.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tech it to the Max Tuesdays: Kidblog

Blogging has become widespread among educators, but many teachers have become resistant when it comes to using it in the classroom. I know I was one of those skeptics. I was worried about ease and accessibility, my students lack of typing skills, and safety. At the same time, I was looking for a way to amp up my students writing portfolios and give them a platform to write about their reading. I came across a simple solution to all of these issues earlier this year: Kidblog!

Why Kidblog?

There are many blogging platforms available for free use. I found Kidblog works the best for classroom teachers for these main reasons:
  • Simple set up
  • Simple security settings
  • Enough options for multi-media blogging without being overwhelming
  • No need for individual email accounts for students
  • Completely free
How Can I Use Kidblog in My Classroom? 

I had a major struggle during my reader's workshops earlier this year. My students LOVE to read, but were having trouble seeing the value in writing about their reading. they were demonstrating that they had the ability to think on high levels during class and group discussions. The problem here is, there will never be enough time for everyone to share their thoughts and ideas orally. They were having trouble buying into the whole "Make your thinking visible" concept. I needed a way to make writing about reading more exciting for them. I realized that blogging was a perfect solution to this. 

At the end of every mini-lesson, before students transition into the work-time portion of reader's workshop, I began requiring a 10 minute Write About Reading time. Each day, 5 students would blog, in place of writing in their notebooks. I only have 5 computers in my classroom. They could use this time to create their own blog post or respond to a classmate. This really helped them buy into writing during reading. Not only have they increased their writing about reading time, but their reader's notebooks never leave their side while they are reading, both at school and at home. They use their notebooks so much more now, especially for quick jots. This helps them to be prepared to for their blog day, knowing that their classmates will be reading their posts. The students have loved the idea of blogging their thoughts so much that they are doing it beyond the confines of reader's workshop. They blog about their reading at home and during free times at school. 

Using Kidblog during reading became so popular and effective, I began using it in writing. In place of binder portfolios, students are able to copy and paste their writing into Kidblog. Each of my students has their own blog where they collect their writing. I love this idea, because it is something that will last a whole lot longer than a binder and can easily be added to continuously beyond this school year. 

One of my students even created a page for book recommendations. 

The thing I love about blogging with students is that the sky is the limit. There are ways to use it throughout all content areas. How are you using/do you plan to use Kidblog in your classroom?

Begin using Kidblog with your students today: