Sunday, March 29, 2015

Five Ways to Keep Test Prep Fun!

Dun-dun-dunnnnn. It's that time again. That all-dreaded testing season. If you're like me, you love your job from August - January and then you'd like to use up all of your saved-up sick days to take a vacation until May.

Actually administering a state test is a horrendous experience. There are dozens of hilarious tips about what you can do during testing, but the truth of the matter is, you can do nothing. Nothing but walk around incessantly, glancing to "make sure students are working on the appropriate section of the test" but not looking closely enough to actually read the test. You have to look over their bubble sheet to notice that they bubbled, but not close enough to notice what they bubbled. Not that it matters, because you have no idea what's on that test anyway.

Basically, the test is a blind date your friend set you up with who gets to judge you by watching you through the window of the restaurant as you wait patiently for them to arrive. You don't actually get to meet them yourself, or to hear the results of this observation until months later, when you're no longer interested in meeting such a creepy person, and your opinion does not matter.
Anyway, there's not much I can do to make delivering the test more interesting, but your test preparation and review can be fun. Here are four tips to keep your test prep engaging and interesting! I've used each of these tips in third - fifth grade classes, and they worked for me!

#1 Play BUMP!

 Target: Get kids moving while practicing strategies with accuracy. Timing it creates a sense of urgency.

This is a great way to get kids moving when all you're really doing is having them answer questions you would've had them answer at their desks. To play BUMP, you'll need the questions you want students to answer all cut apart. Because I require students to use strategies on each question, I make enough copies of the question so each student can have their own.
You stack all the copies of #1 up on one desk, and all the copies of #2 at the next desk, and so on. When you say, "GO!" the kids have to use their strategy to answer the question. You give them an appropriate amount of time (maybe three minutes) and then shout, "BUMP!" The kids have to move to the next question (and I make them take their copy of the question they just answered with them) and answer that. Then you shout "BUMP!" again and the process continues. My kids loved it!

To keep it focused, I always do a little minilesson on the strategy first and then all the questions are focused on kids using that exact strategy. 

#2 Toss the question ball.

Target: Hold everyone accountable, but in a (slightly) fun way.

My kids loved anything where they got to move. To keep them all engaged during not-so-exciting test prep lessons, I used to use the "Smushy Apple of Knowledge." It was just one of those little stress reliever apples. Being soft is important, because basically, I spent entire lessons throwing the apple at my students.

 Oriental trading has a whole collection here. I also used to have a little Earth that we called, "The Smushy Earth of Science". We were inspired by Bill Nye.

These are the rules:
- I ask a question.
- I say a name and toss the ball to that person.
- They must answer.
- I ask another question
- They have only three seconds to decide who to toss it to.
- They say the name and toss it to that person.
- If you take longer than three seconds, I choose where the apple goes.
- If the ball bounces away from the person it was aiming for, only one person who is closest can get up to get the ball and give it to the original person.
- No one can ask for the apple. No one raises their hand; no one shouts out, "ME!" 

The last two rules were (obviously) the result of trying to use the smush apple and realizing I needed some specifics. They keep two things from happening. 1. A student will be ready to toss the apple but spend five minutes looking around the room at all the eager faces, thinking about who to toss it to, and saying, "ummmm." 2. Half a dozen students abruptly leap out of their seats and head for the same tiny apple. 3. Half the class has their hands waving frantically in the air, shouting "OVER HERE!" and the other half isn't worried about participating because those other kids will get the apple.

#3 Partner A/Partner B

Target: Each student is accountable to their partner. Great for differentiation.

In any class, you have a diverse bunch of kids. If your class requires a lot of differentiation (even in their testing), this strategy works well. Even if it doesn't require that, this will still work well. You just won't differentiate the questions.

Here's how it works:
You identify who is Partner A and who is Partner B throughout the class. You assign one problem to Partner As and one problem to Partner Bs.  This is where you can differentiate, subtly. There can be a difference in the problem you assign Partner A and Partner B.

Each student is given an appropriate amount of time to work on their problem. Then they meet with their assigned partner. Partner A teaches their problem to Partner B and Partner B then teaches their problem to Partner A. Easy peasy, but it gets kids showing their best work, communicating about their work, and listening to another student.

# 4 Stations with test prep questions

Target: Have students practice a variety of concepts or one concept in a variety of ways. Includes some movement, and timing it creates a sense of urgency.

Stations are a great way to get kids to move through a variety of practice materials while creating a sense of structure. The day feels pretty long when everyone does this, and then everyone does that, and then you do this other thing, etc. By using stations, students feel like there is a little more energy and movement in the room and adding a timer helps them stay focused and energized.

Look at the concepts you want students to learn. For third grade math, for example, I isolated six main concepts I wanted students to practice. I made a stations activity - usually a matching activity - for each concept. For example, for fractions, I made this fractions comparing station:

For 3-D shapes, I provided students with the 3-D shape forms they could hold and manipulate, and a table to record their faces, edges, and vertices.You can also find it here.

Then, I found about five test-ish questions for each concept. I wanted students to do something hands-on and then apply that immediately to some test questions. This is the bridge we have to build for many of our struggling students. They learn the content, but they don't always know how to demonstrate that on a test! I could then collect those questions and identify who was on target and who needed more support in which areas.

You can also read these posts about the fractions stations I used to prepare my kids for their test! Fraction Fanatic and Fraction Frenzy.

#5 Sorts

Target: Have kids think critically in an easily manageable format.

I love sorting activities! To help my students prepare for their big reading test, I made a sort that included the categories of the main genres tested (fiction, drama, expository, and poetry) and little cards with the characteristics of each genre and the strategies they would need to use. Then I added a sample of each genre and a ton of questions.

They had to sort the characteristics, strategies, and sample into each genre category. Then they had to read the questions, mark up their observations and decide which genre this probably came from. For example, if the question says, "Read the following stage directions from 'Bill and Pete,'" I know it's asking about a drama.

What fun ways do you get kids energized about test preparation?
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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Biography Museum!

When we were planning our biography unit, we scoured pinterest to find the most interesting, engaging, and purposeful way for students to demonstrate their learning about important people. Using a pin we found here we decided to have students create an interactive biography board!

Students researched an important and interesting person to gather information about their lives: birth, important events and contributions, and their current status or death.  

We wanted students to do a little rigorous thought by having them speak from the perspective of their important person. To do this, they had to practice saying, "My most important contribution was..." and "When I was young,..."

Each class made their boards a little bit differently - the variety was great! Students from each class presented to the other classes.

One of our adorable teachers saved the lids from her baby food jars and painted them red. They glued them onto the boards and this became the "Go" button! When the students were ready to present, the listener walked up and pushed the "Go" button. This was the cue for the presenter to share their biographical information!

It was a fun, interactive learning experience that gave students the opportunity to share their learning!

Looking for some other fun projects to teach biography? Check out my Biography Teaching Tools: Graphic Organizers and Projects for third and fourth grade!
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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Teaching Word Work in Guided Reading

As an upper grades teacher, there were a few times in my career that I wanted to cry. One of these times was when I worked with fourth grade students who lacked basic decoding skills in a very serious way. I remember trying to figure out how to address their needs when they were the only kids in my class who needed it.

At that point, I added a short word work component to my guided reading lesson every day. Using the strategies below, I worked on decoding skills with the kids who needed them the most.

Adding Strategies to Students' Toolboxes During Guided Reading

Our goal for decoding instruction is that students will decode words accurately without our support. It's instinctive (and helpful, at first) to prompt students through unknown words. But, if every time they encounter a word they don't know, we prompt them on how to figure it out, they may be waiting for us to tell them what to do!

I know, they're sneaky.

So what we want to do is build their toolbox by adding strategies one at a time. This is the sequence I follow to introduce and develop decoding strategies during guided reading.

1. I choose a strategy students don't seem to have yet for decoding words. This could be reading words that follow a pattern. In this example, it's words that end in -ould.

2. I choose a book that includes opportunities for students to practice that pattern.

3. I explicitly teach using the strategy before I introduce the book. I name the strategy, explain it, and we practice using the strategy with a few words.

4. I write it on a mini-sentence strip and put it on the middle of the table, in front of students. They begin reading. As they get to an opportunity to practice the strategy that I just taught them, I wait to see if they will use it. If they don't, I ask, "What strategy can you use to read that word?" They usually stare for a second, and then point to the strategy. I read it out loud and say, "Now try it." If they need reteaching, I do that right away. Then they try it and we move on.

5. After a few lessons, when students seem to be able to use the strategy well, I put the mini sentence-strip in a little pocket chart behind the guided reading table. As students encounter words in future guided reading lessons, if they don't seem to know where to go, I ask them," Which strategy will you use?" They can choose the appropriate one from the chart.

This method has served to build independence in my readers! I hope it helps you, too!

Below are four different strategies to teach about decoding.

Word Families or Pattern Words

Students should be able to read words that follow patterns or are part of word families. To help students identify these quickly, choose a word family that pops up in your guided reading book a lot (ideally one that students need to practice because they don't read it accurately). Brainstorm words with different onsets and the same word family. As students read, have them hunt for that word family throughout the book.


Sight Word & High Frequency Word Automaticity

Sight words don't follow decodable patterns. The rules might not work. High-frequency words are words that pop up in reading frequently. They need to be instantly recognized as well.

To help students identify them immediately, write sight words on index cards and hole-punch them. Put them on a binder ring. Students can practice the rules every time they arrive in your guided reading group, for a minute or two to build their automaticity.

Using different vowel sounds

Our most struggling readers often use the same vowel sounds every time. Whenever they see an "a", the word is "cap" whether it ends with an "e" or not! Teaching students that vowels make different sounds in different words is important.

In this example, we worked on the vowel teams - ow as in plow and ow as in snow. We sorted words on cards based on the sound and built a list of words for each vowel sound. I chose a book carefully for guided reading that included those vowel sounds so students could practice immediately.

Recognizing Academic Language in Text

When students read content area texts, like science, social studies, or math, they encounter a lot of content area vocabulary! To help get their brains ready to identify those content area words, before we read that kind of text, we do a little word prediction map.

In the middle, I put the topic we expect to read about in that book (we predict the topic based on title & features before we read). Then we brainstorm all the words and phrases we might see in the book as we read. It helps students get their brains focused on the associated vocabulary and they are more likely to identify it if we've verbally discussed it and they've seen it in writing beforehand.

How do you teach decoding skills? 
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Thursday, March 5, 2015

Read Across America: Celebrating with Guest Readers!

Everybody wants our kids to be readers. Like, everybody in the world- it's important to people other than us! Sometimes it doesn't feel that way, like when you're giving another state required test, or when you're having to defend your independent reading time (I've heard this happens). But people in the community actually want our kids to read. So why not capitalize on that?

This year, we invited retired teachers, preservice teachers, and community members to come read aloud to our kids throughout our Read Across America week-long celebration! 

First, we set up our reading lounge (a brand-new school initiative: a comfy place for classes to read!) with cute Seuss stuff. Our librarian found a volunteer to put up some Seuss decorations. She also arranged some hospitality like cookies, snacks, and coffee for our guests.

This room served as our "green room" for readers!


 Our librarian also set up a table full of book selections for our readers. She chose a variety of books and created baskets: English titles, Spanish titles (we live in a bilingual community), and Seuss titles. Honestly, not everyone can read Seuss aloud - he's quite a challenge - so she likes to have all types of books for readers to choose from!


 In the month before our celebration, our librarian ceaselessly contacts people from our community. This year, for retired teachers, she called the retired teacher association. For preservice teachers, she spoke to the dean of education from our university. And for community members, she called every news station, law enforcement agency, and any other individual she could reach through word of mouth!

 Some of our friends served as beautiful guest readers. My husband, a videographer/photographer, our dear friend, a counselor,

another of our friends, the constable,

 and my friend the public librarian all came to read aloud to our kids. 

The mascot, Chico, from our local minor league baseball team, the El Paso Chihuahuas, also came to read aloud to our kids! He brought his buddy and they read a cute book adapted from Curious George Goes to the Ballpark. The kids could not stop laughing.

We also hosted Rick Cabrera, a newscaster, and Mark Negrete, an author.

Overall, I think we had about 30 retired teachers, 20 preservice teachers, and over 35 community members. That's incredible! Our librarian is the best!

Each reader left with a small token of our appreciation: a notepad, pencil, pen, and pin, all tied up with adorable Seuss ribbon we found at Wal-Mart.

This is my hunnybun reading aloud - clearly with lots of expression - to a third grade class. He chose to read The Day the Crayons Quit because when he read it, he couldn't stop cracking up! He (and the kids) especially liked the page where the peach crayon is naked. Because he has the sense of humor of an eight-year-old boy.

 Happy Seuss Week!
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