The Sunday Panel

How do you help students handle test anxiety?test anxiety

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City: My students definitely struggle with test anxiety. I try to boost their confidence by lots of practice prior to the test with similar looking questions, and practice interpreting questions. During the test I try to give them a ‘pep talk’ and teach them the strategy of going through the test and doing questions that they are more confidence about first.


Kimberly, Kimberly, OC Beach Teacher:
With the all of the emphasis on standardized testing these days, students and teachers both get anxious. To help my students (and colleagues) deal with their anxiety, I just remind them to keep perspective. I tell them that they have many qualities that make them great human beings; a test doesn’t define who they are. If they’ve prepared and studied, they should just do the best that they are capable of doing. In the grand scheme of things in life, a test is pretty minor.

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Jackie, Room 213: As with anything, preparation is key.  The more prepared the kids feel the less likely they are to feel anxious.  My regular academic students don’t write standardized tests, so the few tests I give them are all skills based, with little regurgitation.  So, if they have been working all along on the skills I will be assessing, they don’t have much anxiety.  If they haven’t been working, well, that’s another story, and maybe they should feel anxious 😉

My IB students are another story.  They write some very high stakes exams that are externally assessed, so we are all feeling anxious in May when they write their exams.  The other IB teachers and I work hard at reminding them that they have been preparing for this for three years and that they have to trust themselves and their abilities.  It’s just like a marathon runner who has been working hard and training for that one big race–s/he has to believe that all those early morning runs and days at the gym will pay off.  It’s still a very stressful week, though, and we just have to be there to support them during the two weeks when they are writing and to remind them to get some sleep and exercise so they can be focused and energetic when they write.

Making Review Fun

Play “Heads Up” to engage your students during review time!

Use the blank task cards that I have included at the end of this post.  You will print off multiple copies to play this game (or just use scrap paper!).  On each one, write the name of a character from your texts, or an important theme, symbol, etc.

Students can take turns squaring off: two students will come to the front of the class and one of them will draw from your pile of cards (put them face down so the word is not visible to the student who draws the card).  S/he will hold the card so the other student can see.  That student needs to get his/her partner to guess what is written on the card without using any of the words on the card.  For example, if the card said Atticus Finch, the partner might say, “Jem and Scout’s father”.  (To make it more challenging you could tell them they can’t use any names: in this case, the student might say, “He is the lawyer who stands up for what he believes in”).  Each pair of students has sixty seconds to see how many cards they can go through.

Alternately, put students in pairs, and have them write the names of characters, important themes, symbols, etc. on pieces of paper.  Each pair should come up with ten.  Put them all in a hat/container and pairs will take turn drawing from the hat.  One partner guesses during the first round, and they switch for the second round. Keep track of how many each pair gets right during the minute to see who wins in the end.

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black T logoJackie, of Room 213, teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow her at Real Learning in Room 213 and on Facebook.
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Sunday Panel

How do you deal with assessment when students do a project together?

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City: Collaborative learning, as we know, can be hugely beneficial, but have disadvantages as well. We know that students can take advantage of others, intentionally or not intentionally, and may not get the full benefit of the learning experience. However, they can also benefit from learning from each other, and from speaking and listening to the key vocabulary terms and concepts. Additionally, students need to have the chance to learn social skills and to practice positive, productive interactions with peers. The benefits of collaborative learning outweigh the negatives, if used carefully.

CDickson Profile PicClair, High School English on a Shoestring Budget: The advantage is the ability for students to collaborate. It can cut down on off-topic chatter that interferes with work, while allowing students to learn with and from each other. It can make learning more active and engaging…

Assuming that students are actually working collaboratively. The downside is when group work is uneven in distribution– one or more students doing the work of remaining members. A truly student-led, open collaborative project is almost always, in my experience as student and teacher, going to have at least one student not pulling their weight (which also penalizes the others). I’ve even had students cover for others when each has assigned roles.

TPT ProfileSara, Ms. Fuller’s Teaching Adventures: Students typically groan when I announce that I am having them participate in a group project. However, I get them to be a bit more on board when I explain my reasoning. The truth of the matter is, working collaboratively in groups is a life skill. When thinking about the CCSS we are supposed to make our students College and Career ready. In both environments students must work with others to accomplish tasks. Learning how to successfully navigate group work will make them a more employable and successful person later in life.


Sunday Panel

How do you monitor and address the quality and equality of contributions from group members during cooperative Sunday Panel Stickylearning? 

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City: tI think this is very difficult, but one way to monitor and address group contributions is to assign roles within the group.  I have found that this works best if it is not a one time thing, but something where the roles are practiced and students become comfortable within their role.  This helps them be successful carrying that out, and learn to interact as a group..

CDickson Profile PicClair, High School English on a Shoestring Budget:  I like to have at least part of the project worked on in class. This allows me to monitor (eavesdrop on) how students are dividing tasks and get a gauge for who is completing which parts. I also try to use group evaluation forms, though with moderate success as my students don’t want to “narc” each other out to the teacher for not working. To help with that I remind them that they will also get dinged on their grade if they mark a classmate as contributing more than they did and that I’ve been watching who was working on what..

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Jackie, Room 213: Like Clair, I monitor discussions in class, but they often change their focus when the teacher drops by, so it’s not always the most accurate assessment of what’s happening.  The group evaluations help, but we can’t use those every time, especially for informal group discussions.  This year I’ve started doing more modeled discussions.  I pick a group of students who represent all of the “types” of contributors (someone who likes to take over, someone who likes to blend into the woodwork, etc) and we have a discussion together in front of the class.  I direct the discussion so they can see what a good one looks like.  Has it solved everything?  No, but it’s one more tool in my toolbox!

Feature Friday: Engaging All Readers

Independent reading is an effective way to reach all levels of readers in your classroom.  By providing choice, we are far more likely to motivate struggling and reluctant readers.  However, management and assessment of independent reading can be a challenge.  The following products can help you meet that challenge:

choosing novelsChoosing Novels for Sustained Silent Reading:  How do your students select novels to read? Does your school implement Silent Sustained Reading? This easy activity helps your students choose appropriate novels for independent reading. It uses a strategy called IRA in which students evaluate their book choices by interest, readability, and appropriateness.



independent reading Independent Reading; Goal Setting and Assignments: Independent reading assessments are always tricky: you want students to read something they enjoy, at their reading level and at their own pace. How, then, do you assess them when they are all over the place? How can you give an assignment when some have finished three books, while several are struggling to get through one? How do you reward both the voracious reader and the reader who has proudly and tenaciously finished just one? Most importantly, how do you instill a love of reading and still hold your students accountable? This package offers a solution!  It includes forms that will allow students to set individual goals to increase their reading stamina, as well as ones for teachers to track progress and effort.

Check out Tuesday’s post to read more about engaging all readers.



Engaging All Readers

I am an English teacher and I love to read.  I read non-fiction and fiction, classics and chick lit. Nothing makes me happier than wandering through a book store, choosing my next read, and then heading home to crawl up on my couch to get lost in a new adventure.  Sadly, not all of my students feel like this about reading.  If I’m lucky, a handful of them actually love to read. The reality is that the majority of my students don’t get a rush when they get a new book, and many have found ways around actually cracking the spines of the books we give them to read.

For years I acted as the reading police, giving “did you read it” tests in an attempt to force my students to read the classic texts on our curriculum. Then, last year, I went to an in-service and saw this video created by New Hampshire teacher Penny Kittle:

I knew that the kids in the video were my kids too.  The next day I did a survey of all of my students and found that over sixty percent of them had not read their assigned books from tenth and eleventh grade.  Yet there they were in my classroom, seniors ready to graduate.  They had used sparksnotes and just faked it by listening in class.  Many had written successful literary essays on the texts.   None had become lifelong readers.  I decided to make a change.

Luckily, my change was assisted by my district.  The head of English had lobbied the powers that be to finance classroom libraries for every English teacher.  Every grade level has six copies of ten very current titles, including two copies of each title for the other grades.  It’s a mother load of books that kids want to read.  I have supplemented my library with other titles that I have borrowed and bought, so kids can choose from  titles likes Hunger Games, I am Messenger, Kite Runner, Outliers, Pride and Prejudice and On the Road.   They are reading at their own rate and reading books that interest them.  And, they are reading.  I can hear a pin drop when it’s silent reading time.  We will still read Macbeth and Animal Farm and poetry and short stories.  We will still discuss author technique and purpose, and we will still write some traditional English class assignments.  However, by giving students choice and allowing them to  access a book that speaks to them, we are hopefully turning them onto reading and making it more likely that they will want to read more difficult texts.

book loveOne of the biggest problems with this type of independent reading is assessment.  How do you mark them when everyone is reading a different text at a different pace?  Some students will read twenty books during the same time that others will read two or three.  It’s true that it is not as easy for the teacher to track than when everyone is reading the same text, but it is very doable.   Penny Kittle has many suggestions and ideas to offer teachers who want to follow her lead and create a real love of reading in their classrooms.  You can check out Book Love or her website where she has lots of handouts to help teachers with reading workshops.

It can be hard to change, I know.  I’m still only two semesters in to using a workshop approach and sometimes I think it would just be easier to go back to the whole class novel.  But when I see thirty heads bent over their books and hear so many voices ask “when are we going to read?”, I know for sure that I know I’m doing the right thing.

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Jackie  (Room 213) teaches high school English in Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow her at Real Learning in Room 213.
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Sunday Panel

Sunday Panel StickyWhat is your biggest challenge to engagement in your classroom and how do you deal with it?

profile pic2Tara, Science in the City:  I think my biggest challenge to engagement is the outside issues and forces that so many of my students face. I teach in an urban area, and when students are coming to school hungry, tired, or have been awake much of the night because of shootings in their neighbourhood, it is understandably hard for them to engage in class. I try to counter this by making my classroom a safe, consistent place that they can count on. Also, I try to make sure that all students feel some measure of success, so that they are more likely to stay engaged in class.


Kimberly, OC Beach Teacher: It can be hard to get students engaged in their learning. One of my biggest obstacles is getting students interested in reading. I have quite a few reluctant readers, especially boys. To address this challenge, I give my students choices in their novels at the beginning of the semester. When we go to the library during the first week of school, I also “tease” students to read by giving a short book talk on several books that I know are popular. For instance, I find that many of my boys enjoy reading nonfiction such as “Seal Team Six” and “Lone Survivor.”

When I plan literature circles, I also try to arrange the groups by gender. At times, I have had a lot of success with this since it can make it easier for the entire group to come to a consensus on the book that it wants to read. I also provide a wide variety of novels. Some include classics such as “The Red Badge of Courage” or “The Color Purple.” Others are contemporary fiction including “The Help” and “Water for Elephants.” Sometimes my struggling readers will choose “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” I’m always on the lookout for books that may appeal to my students!

black T logoJackie, Room 213:  In my general class the biggest challenge is that, for many of my students, school is just one of the many difficulties they face and it sits low on the priority list when they are dealing with addictions, family issues, abuse and pregnancy.   For them, I try to make school as relevant and useful as I can.  I try to find reading materials that speak to their real life issues and develop projects and assignments that help them build coping skills as well as the ones required by the curriculum.  It’s hard.

With my college bound students, the biggest problem is that the students seem much more subdued in class than they used to be.  I love to have discussion-based classes but these days it’s a struggle to get them to engage– it’s something that many teachers in my school are noticing.  Is it because they are so over-stimulated by their gadgets that school is just deadly dull?  Is it because they are so used to speaking to each other via text that face-to-face discussion is something they aren’t able to easily do anymore?  Whatever the cause, we are trying to approach the problem with a greater focus on speaking activities.  One colleague is teaching almost exclusively with the Socratic seminar.  He said it was painful at first but now he’s finally getting more buy in from the students.  It’s a challenge, for sure, but I am working at finding ways to get them to open up and speak out.

CDickson Profile PicClair, High School English on a Shoestring Budget:  My biggest challenge is lack of interest in schooling in general, followed closely by personal and familial barriers to success. Many of my student do not see schooling as an important part of their life or futures. (I’m not likely to convince them, as they spend more time seeing plenty of people doing “fine” without education.) So, my approach is more to make their time there useful, practical, and fun. I use a lot of projects that incorporate skills in creative ways. If I can draw them into the project, then they will get some practice on their skills. If they don’t work, because of absences, personal drama, or lack of interest, they get nothing.

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Sara, Ms. Fuller’s Teaching Adventures: For my college students I have a hard time getting them to engage in the in-class activities. They seem to think they are optional. One way I try to engage them is to very explicitly explain my rationale for the activity and how it will help them with the larger assignments that are weighted more heavily. I also try to connect it with a real world example.

Sometimes, they just don’t seem engaged in class- which I get. A writing class is not typically a student’s favorite class, especially one that is all academic- non creative writing. In order to help with this in general I try to mix things up. Sometimes I use presentations, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes we do group work, sometimes individual. I use videos, I play background music, and I ask them about themselves. I think when the class feels more like a community they automatically engage more.

What about you?  What are your challenges when it comes to engaging your students and how do you deal with them?  We’d love to hear from you!