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Teaching Despite the Test

Don't let standardized tests drain the life out of your teaching. Check out these tips for getting the creativity back in the classroom.

Found in: Teaching Strategies

Standardized testing season is longer than ever these days — in fact, you might reasonably say it starts on the first day of school and ends on the last. But this time of year, it might feel like lawmakers’ zeal for standardized testing has no limits, and that the pursuit of real learning and teaching is something withered or dead.

It doesn’t have to be that way. The long-term solution lies in NEA’s call for well-designed, high-quality assessment tools—the kind that “can help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. In school districts across the country, but especially recently Seattle, educators and parents are saying no to standardized tests that make no sense for their children and standing up for common sense.

But, in the short term, how can you keep from sacrificing your own sanity and your students’ well-being to the pressures of testing? It’s not easy—but it can be done. Take inspiration from your colleagues who are sowing seeds of laughter and learning in their classrooms all year long.

“I maximize every teachable moment with my students,” says Virginia teacher Amanda Gallimore Morgan. “I prepare engaging lessons so that they will want to learn. I will not use standardized testing as an excuse to prepare anything less for my students. They deserve it! We’re teachers, we make greatness happen every day.”

Make it fun

Shanna Fox, a Winter Haven, Florida, teacher, takes a page from J.K. Rowling and transports her classroom and students to Hogwarts School for Magic for their test preparation. “We shall defeat the-test-that-must-not-be-named!” she says. Other teachers make sure to take frequent breaks from the hard work: Simon Says, paper airplane flights, silent speedball, walks around school, etc.

In Tigard, Oregon, teacher Karen Johnson still asks kids to talk about their favorite books. “It teaches me who they are as a reader, and it gives other kids ideas—‘Maybe I’ll read that,’” she says. “Can I point to the standard that lesson covers? Probably not. But it has so much value.”

Liven up the material with real life

In the Bronx, New York, English teacher Jeanette Toomer has an interesting method for combating test prep. When her students are working on memoir writing, Toomer invites authors who are writing their own. The son of an African-American Korean War soldier and a Korean mother told her students about growing up in a hut, joining a gang of boys who stole to survive, not knowing who his father was, and experiencing prejudice from other Koreans. They were spellbound.

“When he walked in, you had no idea he had this interesting past,” she said to them. “You, too, have a real story that people want to hear and that you can share. You’re the expert: It’s your life. Don’t feel you can’t do it. The richness is in you and it will come out on the paper.”

Integrate the arts where you can

Kentucky gifted and talented teacher Dinah Houston, integrates art and math once a week via student performances on Japanese-style Taiko drums. In preparation for frequent performances, her kids rehearse weekly, write their own music and — unbeknownst to them — practice the fundamentals of math.

Kentucky gifted and talented teacher Dinah Houston, integrates art and math once a week via student performances on Japanese-style Taiko drums. In preparation for frequent performances, her kids rehearse weekly, write their own music and — unbeknownst to them — practice the fundamentals of math.

“We have such a good time here, it’s crazy!” she says.

Stay strong and be bold!

“I refuse to teach to the test!” Delaware educator Lisa Mims recently told NEA Today Facebook fans. “Mystery Skypes, blogging, interactive educational games, creating and using various tech tools all help fight off the testing blues!”

At Poestenkill Elementary School in upstate New York, the principal and staff decided two years ago to take a bold step: no pre-test or post-test in the week after Thanksgiving, just teaching and learning. The move led to very creative lessons. Some teachers used cooking to teach measurement and fractions. Fourth-grade students built Indian long houses. The whole school read books by author Matt McElligott and staged activities to go with the books—including a crazy hair day in honor of McElligott’s Even Monsters Need Haircuts.

“As kids get older, the world demands creative thinking and problem solving,” says fifth-grade teacher Lisa Jeschke. The imaginative lessons of no-test week will help them develop those skills. When the faculty is prepping students for state tests, she says, the lessons are more about formulaic ways to write essays and answer questions, because that’s what it takes to score high. There’s less opportunity for teachers or students to try fresh, original thinking.

Minimize the stress

Do what you can to turn off testing anxiety, which researchers suggest occurs in about 25 to 40 percent of students (who, on average, have been found to perform about 12 percent below their peers.) On testing days, try turning your classroom into a spa. Hand out peppermint candies or sport-sized water bottles. Turn on a relaxation tape with sounds of the ocean or jungle rainfall. Pass out coloring books for breaks between tests (even high school-age students love coloring!), or let them hold a favorite stuffed animal in their lap.

Body and breathing exercises have been shown to be an effective antidote—and, once learned, they can help kids and adults in stressful situations beyond your classroom. Try this one, suggested by NEA-affiliated faculty at Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City (MCCKC): While seated, put your feet flat against the floor and the palms of your hands on the underside of your chair seat. Push down with your feet and pull up on the chair at the same time for five seconds. Then relax for five seconds and repeat.

Or, this one, also from MCCKC: While sitting on your desk, put your fingertips on your forehead and the lower part of your palms on your cheekbones. Make sure your eyes are covered but don’t actually touch your eyes. Picture a relaxing scene in your mind and stay there, eyed covered, for one to two minutes. Try asking your students if they can also imagine any sounds or smells from their relaxing scene.

Heidi Jensen, a Utah teacher, also has this anti-stress tip: “Once in a great while…go outside and scream for five seconds!” (Just warn your colleagues in outside-facing classrooms first!)

Don't Give Up

The testing mania wears you down, doesn’t it? And it’s tempting to say, “Okay, you win, testing company! We’ll practice answering multiple-choice questions all day long…” But you know your students deserve a rich experience in your classroom and lessons that get them excited about learning. And others do too.

Listen to the words of education historian Diane Ravitch, who wrote in February: “I have said it before and I will say it again: We want teachers to teach with creativity and passion.” In the same column, Ravitch called on states to not pay bonuses to teachers to produce higher test scores and to stop evaluating teachers based on the test scores of their students, saying, “We now realize that this causes teaching to the test. That must stop now.”


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