Break a Cycle of Repeated Failure: Create the Perfect Day

When it comes to standardized testing, does it really matter if a student brings a jacket or a favorite pencil? If they test in the morning or afternoon? If they test on the computer or with paper and pencil?

Work of Tron Guignard -- I had the privilege of being Tron's 8th grade math teacher.  This is one of a couple of great comics Tron made for me and kindly gave me permission to use.

Work of Tron Guignard — I had the privilege of being Tron’s 8th grade math teacher. This is one of the great comics Tron made for me in 2007 and kindly gave me permission to use.

Backstory: A standardized Algebra test stands in between my students and high school graduation.  For many that test is a walk in the park, but for a few this test is a reoccurring nightmare.  I coach the latter group of kids in a shortened period designed to remedy any Algebra deficiency before the next retake. If only it were that simple, but frankly, actually knowing Algebra is only half the battle for these whom have repeatedly failed.  Around every quarter, I am assigned a new group of students whom have experienced repeated failure on this state Algebra assessment.

Bubba (name changed to protect the guilty) defied logic. According to all pretests, he should have passed the Algebra state test, yet here Bubba was in my mid-day remediation for retakers. After I had repeatedly looked for some deficiency and came up with none, Bubba finally complained to me, “They tested me in the morning. I’m never awake in the morning. I don’t warm-up until lunch.” Our awesome testing coordinator (You rock, Andi!) and I conferred. She arranged for an afternoon testing, and I made him swear that he would make the extra scheduling hassle worth it by passing. He passed.

Since then, we keep our ears open to the complaints or concerns of students caught in a cycle of failure. The conditions are different for each. This semester one student was convinced a Friday test in the morning would create his best day. For another an IEP accommodation of verbatim reading had to be by a human and not headphones. Does it really matter? Does testing on a certain day of the week really produce a better result than testing on a random day? For the repeat failer, the issue is not whether or not they actually need a certain condition. The issue is whether or not they believe a certain condition will make a difference. As mentioned in a previous post, my biggest hurdle is convincing retesters that they CAN pass the assessment. Let’s not underestimate the mind game. One darling student absolutely refused to test because he was convinced the computer monitor would give him a migraine. “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” ― Henry Ford

If to break the cycle of repeated failure it takes testing on Friday, bringing hair ties, or providing a room fan, I’ll buy in. Bubba has taught me two things: (1) Keep an open ear to student’s passing complaints. (2) Never discredit the affect of the environment on poor testers.
Perhaps a perfect day is just the confidence builder that some students need to believe passing is possible.

AlgebraSimplifiedIconDawn is a secondary Algebra teacher in Maryland with a B.S. in Secondary Mathematics Education and a Masters in Information Science and Learning Technologies.
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Keep Calm & Write On

How do you prepare your students for timed writing?  It’s a challenging task, and in this era of high-stakes testing, English teachers must strategize so their students will have success on these assessments.  With timed writing, students need to read and respond quickly to a prompt in a cogent essay or prose constructed response.

Image Credit:

Image Credit:

A typical prompt on the SAT requires students to consider an abstract idea and then write a persuasive essay.  On the AP English Literature Exam, students read literature excerpts and write essays analyzing the texts.   For the upcoming PARCC assessments, students will read several texts and then synthesize their reading into a prose constructed response.
For teachers who have often been trained to encourage the use of the writing process, all of this can seem overwhelming.  But if students are going to do well, they must practice. I’ve developed a warm-up activity that gives students this practice!
First, I search online for retired prompts (prompts that have been used on previous exams), or I write prompts in the style of the exam.  Here are  links to some:

Then, at least once a week, I project a prompt at the beginning of class and set the timer for several minutes.  Normally, I start with five minutes, and as students increase their speed, I reduce the time to three minutes.  If you don’t have your own timer, here is a link to an online stopwatch:

During the timed practice, students read the prompt and complete a brainstorm with the ideas for how they would respond.  They can write a list, modified outline, web, or any other graphic organizer that helps them.  Next, they share their brainstorms on the document camera and the class listens as each student shares her process and thoughts.  I also model how I would respond to the prompt.

Besides giving them time to practice, they learn from one another and see each other’s process.  And although they don’t actually write the essay (and I don’t have to grade it), they get practice understanding what the prompt is asking (sometimes they annotate it), writing a thesis, planning evidence and organizing their ideas.  Additionally, it is a safe way for them to practice because they aren’t graded on their brainstorm; they’re just expected to participate and be willing to share.
Ultimately, the research shows that when students take a couple of minutes to plan, even on a timed writing assignment, they will achieve a higher score!  As SAT tutor and Harvard graduate Bradford Holmes says in a 2013 US News and World Report article, “This may seem counterintuitive at first, as you might expect to spend the entire period writing. Yet brainstorming and outlining a plan is actually the most important thing students can do to improve their essay scores.”



Kim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.

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Sunday Panel: Strategies for Review

Sunday Panel StickyWhat strategies do you use to review for summative testing (especially differentiated strategies)?

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City: I try to use a mixture of strategies to keep students engaged.  There are a lot of students who think they are already done, give up, or don’t really know how to study.  So…..I try to use the time in class to teach some study skills as well.  I like to do stations that are a mixture of practice questions, vocabulary, study skills (practice using flashcards with a partner), etc.  I also like to do this because they will have some success, and see progress, even if they aren’t always seeing that success on standardized test scores.

If we are reviewing for several days, I will mix in some other strategies like heterogeneous groupings  to do practice questions, and review games.


OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKimberly, OC Beach Teacher:Reviewing for assessments can be tedious, so I try to make it engaging whenever possible.  For instance, in my English class we are using the Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary workshop.  We complete a 20 word unit in a two-week time span.  Typically, I give the post-assessment on the second Friday, so I spend part of the preceding Thursday reviewing for the vocabulary test.  Sometimes we play vocabulary bingo.  It’s easy because I simply give the students blank bingo boards, and they write the words randomly in the spaces.  Then I read definitions, synonyms, and antonyms, and students mark the appropriate spaces.  Other times I play vocabulary baseball.  I post the bases around the classroom, and divide the students into two teams.  Next I act as the “pitcher” and deliver the vocabulary words, which the students define, or provide synonyms/antonyms, or use correctly in sentences.  No matter the game, I always try to make reviewing a fun activity!


CDickson Profile PicClair, High School English on a Shoestring Budget: I like to use review games.  I bought a classroom set of 8×10 size whiteboards (specially for education so they’re durable!).  I can do any type of question type with these boards– I’ve done grammar review where I display a sentence they either correct it or decide it is correct as written along with regular content review.  I let students get in groups (and groups of 1 are acceptable) and they can work together.  It’s NOT about which team/ student is the fastest, but I wait until all teams have an answer.  Then every team with the correct answer gets points.  Winning teams usually get extra credit and/ or candy (I usually let them pick.)  My students are not motivated, so working as a class generally keeps them on task.  Sometimes I get really competitive classes, which is actually really awesome– as they really do try harder to learn, even if just so they can win.


new logo blogJackie,Room 213:One question that always come up in the last few weeks of class is this: “When do we get a review?”  When students ask this, they usually want to know when I am going to go over all the stuff they have to “know” for the final assessment; in other words, “what do we have to go home and memorize?”   They want a handout with all of the information they need, so they can spend a few hours pouring over it, only to regurgitate and forget it immediately after the assessment is over.  It’s not my idea of real learning.

First of all, I like to give final assessments that ask them to demonstrate the skills they have learned throughout the semester, using the content as a vehicle to do so, not as the end in itself.  Because of this, my “reviews” ask them to focus on the skills I want them to  use; I also like to put the review process in their hands, not mine.  I want them to be active participants in the process, not passive ones.  One of my favorite ways is to put up chart paper in various locations in the room titled “”what I know”” and “”what I need to know”” in regard to particular topics.  Students use sticky notes to add details to the charts.  After everyone has a chance to contribute, the students use graphic organizers to record the information that they need to direct their review.  Another method I use is to assign groups a topic and have them do a review with the rest of the class.

Three Tips for Quick Assessment

1. Design your assessments to be quick to mark in large quantities.

This doesn’t mean that you should make really short assessments – rather be aware that you’re going to have to mark a ton of these so let’s set up a few things to make that easier.

A. After each problem, write out what the question was.

Well of course you would do this, but what saves me lots of time is writing it out in a particular way.  For example, if the question was out of 5 marks, I wouldn’t write /5, instead I write 0 1 2 3 4 5.  It is so much quicker for me to go through and draw a slash through the 3 than it is for me to write out the number 3.  Ridiculous though it may sound, when you’re marking 60+ 6-page tests this time really adds up!

Michelle Brosseau - Assessment Quick Tips - Quiz (1)

B. If doing matching questions, use a phrase to make the process quicker.

I will sometimes use a made up phrase or acronym to make matching quicker to mark.  For example, I think of the stellar classification chart OBAFGKM (this could be the solution).  Maybe not easy to see if you’re not an astronomy buff, but these 7 letters has a phrase associated with it to help you remember: Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.  Now you’ve got a phrase that the students don’t think anything of, but you can look at quickly to see if they’ve matched correctly.  I will sometimes use this or a made up phrase in a different language so that I don’t have to check each question individually, I just have to search for that phrase.

2. Mark using Mr. Sketch markers or erasable pens.

Because I use the slash through their mark on each question I enjoy using Mr. Sketch markers when marking some of my students’ work.  It’s quick, it’s colorful and honestly, the smell keeps me in a good mood!  I color code depending on the category I am marking which makes it easy to add up later on.  Also, it is fun to see kids smelling their tests before they even look at how well they did!

Feedback that is too long to write in marker I use erasable pens for.  Again, you can color code the comments as we know some students are sensitive to colors (my former self included!).

3. Have a buddy who can encourage you.

I am lucky enough to work with my sister among a wealth of other amazing colleagues.  When time is short and report cards are looming sometimes you just need someone to kick your marking motivation into high gear!  Let them know what you have on your plate and that you need some encouragement.  Plan to have a marking party in the staff room and both agree not to leave until you’re done.  Bring snacks and some good music and you’ll be surprised how quickly you can crank out those assessments!

Good Luck!

Mrs. Brosseau's BinderMichelle is a secondary Science and Physics teacher from Ontario, Canada.  She blogs at Mrs. Brosseau’s Binder and shares her materials through her Teachers Pay Teachers Store.

Vocabulary Strategies

taraNo matter your subject area, vocabulary is critical for speaking the ‘language’ of the subject, and for building up confidence and comfort with test questions.  In other words, as we approach testing season, it is very important that students are familiar with the vocabulary.

In my classroom, I use several strategies for students to build up comfort with the vocabulary.

quizletAt the start of the unit, I give students a list of terms and definitions for the unit.  I usually make these up by using the website  Once you enter the words, you can choose from a list of previously entered definitions for that term.  I try to keep the list to a manageable, not overwhelming amount.   For homework, they have a week to do to options from their vocabulary ‘menu.’  They can do three for extra credit.  This menu includes options such as drawing pictures, using in a sentence, writing definitions, writing a story, etc.

Then within class, I like to spend a day on vocabulary, and do some station work.  Sometimes I will miss in the vocabulary with other review stations.  On other occasions I just focus on vocabulary.

Some of the vocabulary station that I like to use are:  Students can use different games on the site to practice with the words.  My favorite is scatter, but there is a ‘learn’ mode that is also great.  Some of my lowest students can practice over and over and feel a sense of success.

– match up words and definitions.  Print out terms on one set of cards, and definitions on another.  Students match up the words and definitions.  They can also compete to see how quickly they can match them up.

– Pictionary – students can get into small teams and choose a word randomly (draw a card); and then draw the word.  Their teammates try to guess which term they are drawing.

– Create a test question using the vocabulary terms

There are others, but this is a good place to start.  I think its really important that vocabulary stations focus on knowing the definitions and student processing, not only on spelling, or word searches/crossword puzzles.

Students are engaged, competitive, and practicing using the terms they need to learn.

profile pic2Science in the City is a science teacher in an urban district and seeks out ways to make her lessons engaging and memorable for students.



Sunday Panel

Sunday Panel StickyHow do you integrate seasonal or holidays into your SECONDARY classroom?

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City:  As a science teacher, I have a difficult time. I would like to, and there are many connections that could be made, but I often don’t think I do enough because I feel very pressured by the curriculum. One thing that I do try to do in my Earth Science class, which I am proud of, is at the start of each season we do an activity on solstices/equinoxes and causes of seasons. Its great review/reinforcement, and is seasonal and timely.


TPT ProfileSara, Ms. Fuller’s Teaching Adventures:  Since I teach English I find it easy. I typically go more seasonal than holiday for PC reasons. I’ve done a unit on The Iditarod and read To Build A Fire by Jack London in the winter. I like to do Edgar Allen Poe and have students write scary stories around Halloween. I can typically find poetry for all seasons. Shakespeare’s love sonnets are great around Valentine’s day. One year, for Easter (I decided to risk the holiday bent) I put paper Easter Eggs around the room with famous first lines of books. For extra credit students could find the eggs and identify the lines from the books.

I wish I were more knowledgeable about other cultures and religions because I think as long as I was being all inclusive I could include more of that into my classes. I think it’s kind of sad that as students get older they miss out on some of the “fun” they had when younger.


LanguageArtsClassroomLauralee,The Language Arts Classroom:  I do so carefully because I want to respect religious beliefs when applicable.

I often have students do a writing assignment that gives them freedom in the actual subject matter. That is they can write about a holiday, but take whatever perspective they want: gifts, food, family, traditions, etc. When I have students address something important in their lives, they are willing to focus on other work too. It helps that I acknowledge a large portion of their lives – obviously it is almost summer and they want out of school!




Zumba – Sweat and Fun!

I’m not a competitive athlete, but I like to go to the gym and stay fit, which is getting more challenging every year! I’ve gone to many gym classes over the years including spin, yoga, Pilates, and kickboxing, but my new favorite is Zumba. And although Zumba classes gained popularity several years ago, I’ve recently become addicted. In high school (25 years ago), I enjoyed cheerleading and participating on the pom-pom dance team, but by the time I started Zumba, I had definitely lost my dancing abilities! At first I was very embarrassed to participate in Zumba class, but with a supportive instructor zumbainstructorand friendly classmates I soon got over my inhibitions and just decided to have fun! Our classes are diverse, with participants ranging from teenagers (including some of my students) to grandmothers.

Here is one of my favorite instructors, Amber.

Now, after months of classes, I’m remembering how to loosen up and practice the hip hop and salsa moves. Also, I’m enjoying modern music by artists such as Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Robin Thicke. Besides working up a sweat, this helps me keep in-tune with my students 😉 Taking a class also reminds me what it feels like to be a student and how the best instructors use scaffolding (just a few new moves at a time) and modeling to help people learn. If you are ever looking for a fun work-out that burns lots of calories, I highly recommend giving Zumba a try!

OC_BEACH_TEACHER_revised_finalKim, the OCBeach Teacher,  is a National Board Certified English teacher who is currently teaching American Literature and AP English Literature and Composition.  She shares classroom ideas and tips on her OCBeachTeacher Facebook Page.
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