Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Is it Acceptable to Teach to the Test?

Today, my students finished the dreaded New York State 8th Grade English Language Arts exam.

We don’t score their work until late next week, but I took note of their behaviors as they took the test, and I'm hopeful as to their scores. I saw kids highlighting as they read, and the constant rustling of papers suggested that they all remembered to pre-read the multiple choice questions before reading the passages. On the extended response sections, kids were able to take the essay prompt and echo it in their introduction paragraphs. I even saw kids using my tip of going back and crossing out words to replace them with higher-level vocab. All of this leads me to one overwhelming conclusion:

I have done a very good job of teaching students how to take a state exam. I’m not sure how to feel about that, so I thought I’d weigh out my opposing views on the topic of preparing for generalized tests.

Argument Against Teaching to the Test
I remember one of my college professors standing stoically in front of the lecture hall announcing that good teachers, those who teach content and skills, will never need to resort to teaching to a test. I doubt many teachers will willingly step forward to dispute the need to focus on teaching content and skills, so this seems like a strong argument. Most district mission statements carry the underlying intent of preparing students to become productive contributors to society, and this can only be achieved with a strong foundation of knowledge and understanding.

Argument in Favor of Teaching to the Test
Much like communism, my former professor’s words of wisdom make sense in theory, but don’t apply smoothly in practice. For example, just because I have the skills to drive an automobile doesn’t exactly assure that I’m prepared to drive a tractor trailer. Skills change depending how they are applied. It’s the teacher’s job to not only teach the skills, but to prepare students for situations where those skills will be needed. The “test-taking tips” I witnessed my students using are all things that should be put into good practice when reading/writing anything – so what if they were taught in the context of a standardized test?

My Own Conclusion
A few hours before posting this I created this poll asking my 1200 Twitter followers to weigh in on the subject. So far, only 1 person has voted. Either this means I have fewer friends than I realize, or perhaps teaching to the test is something that teachers are a bit uncomfortable discussing. Do we all do it? As educators, is test prep or dirty little secret?
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

12 Tips for Better Classroom Management

Last night I had a dream that one of my classes was out of control and I was unable to regain order. At about 3am while everyone else in the house slept, I laid awake thinking about this list. I’m no expert, but here are my tips for improving classroom management skills.

1. Know who is the real disruption
If you stop class to yell at a student, you have become a bigger disruption that the student. Are there times when the lesson needs to be put on pause? Absolutely. But if Little Jimmy is sitting in the back corner minding his own business while sticking erasers up his nose, you probably do not need to draw attention to it publicly in front of the class.

2. Choose your battles
You work with kids. By nature they don’t always follow the rules. If you can’t handle the fact that sometimes they are going to come to class without a pencil, then maybe you need to find a job working with adults (who, by the way, are just as likely to come to work unprepared).

3. Don’t make threats you can’t/won’t follow through on
Nothing strips you of authority like a student calling your bluff. Consequences are essential to a good class environment – just make sure they are something you can actually follow through with if the situation arises.

4. Never back a student into the corner
When a student is backed into a corner, his/her basic fight or flight instinct kicks in. If he/she chooses fight, then you have a real problem on your hands. Knowing when to push and when to lay off can be tricky, but is essential to effective management.

5. Clear and Consistent Expectations
I wrote this blog post regarding expectations and consequences. For good classroom management the students need to know where you draw the line in the sand and what happens when they cross it.

6. Don’t Disrespect your Name (AKA nicknames from students are bad!)
If your last name rhymes with dumpster, it isn’t going to be a problem unless you let it. Teachers lose a certain level of respect and authority when students start calling them by nicknames. I knew of one teacher who allowed his students to call him “Mr. Dude.” Let me ask you this – who you respect a guy named Mr. Dude?

7. Seating Charts, Random and Often
Seating charts serve two purposes – they separate troublesome student clusters, and they also force everyone in the class to get to know each other. It makes me sad when students are in classes all day together but don’t even know each other’s names. Building a school community has many, many advantages, but one is that it almost completely eliminates any kind of student conflict in your class. It’s a win-win, especially for classroom management.

8. Rapport
There’s one student currently on our team that can be quite a handful. He’s the boy I trade mix CDs with; the boy who stays after with his friends and plays Risk with me; the boy who comes to school early and does homework in my room before homeroom. Believe it or not, he is never a discipline problem for me during class.

9. Be willing to laugh (At yourself and at each other)
The other day while teaching the play version of The Diary of Anne Frank, we began discussing the brewing romance between Anne Frank and Peter Van Daan and how it affected the overall plot. One boy in the back of the room called out “Anne and Peter hooked up. I’d consider that the rising action.” Hardy har. The class burst out laughing. I could have scolded him for the double entendre, but then a student would have surely asked what he meant, causing another round of laughter. By cracking a smile and rolling my eyes, I was able to move on with minimal disruption.

10. Kill one to warn one hundred
If a student does something that's unacceptable, make sure he/she knows it, as well as every student who witnessed the offense. This is why it's important to deal with issues immediately.

11. Listen
I don’t want to say teachers should eavesdrop on students because they sounds so invasive. Instead, let’s call it aural monitoring. If there’s trouble brewing between two students in your class, the hallways are going to know about it before you do. Keeping an ear out will give you the ability to be proactive to a problem instead of reactive once all hell breaks loose in the middle of your lesson.

12. Raising your voice should be a secret weapon
It happens maybe twice a year – Something goes so horribly awry that I momentarily lose my mind and start hollering. It's kind of brutish, but it gets the students' attention and puts them back in line (and pretty much guarantees that all my other classes will go well – news of a meltdown travels quickly). Why does this work? Because it rarely happens. If a teacher is always yelling, students just tune it out. Save your voice for when you really need it.

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