State Testing Countdown

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STATE TESTING – The real 4-letter word in education. The two words sure to make many, if not most, educators cringe. The pressure to achieve proficiency weighs heavily on students and teachers. For those of you already testing, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” For those of you still burning the midnight oil to help students practice all the things you’ve taught this year, consider the following to help with state testing:

~Student Learning Stations~

This is a great way to group students and differentiate. You can spruce stations up by adding games and highly interactive activities. It also allows the teacher to move about the room and help those students who need help. You can read more about student stations here.

Student Stations1

~Use Released Test Items~

I always used released state exams from other states in addition to my own, whenever those were available. I wanted students to be exposed to all of the possible ways a skill could be assessed. That said, it was imperative that I find other ways to provide students with the level of rigor I’d expect them to see on a state exam. Think about the way your state’s test is set up, and find something that works for you.

Below are a few resources I have used:

~Let Data Drive Your Instruction~

Whenever you assess students, always be sure that a standard is attached and that you are collecting data each time. ‘Thumbs up, thumbs down’ is NOT a good way to access what a student really knows. Instead, give each student an opportunity to demonstrate what they know. Then, be sure to track how your students do on each skill.

Another thing to consider is using an interactive assessment platform like Plickers , Quizziz, or Kahoot! to break up the monotony of pen and paper or computer screens. Each provide data that you can use to drive instruction.

Put it all together

If you are so inclined, you could put this all together and cycle through from now until you begin testing. For some teachers in my district, they still have 2-3 weeks. A lot can happen with student achievement n 2-3 weeks when teachers are intentional.

Stupid Questions

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Scrolling through Twitter and I see this:

20170407_162405I stared at the screen for a moment before I re-tweeted it.  At first, I didn’t know why this was so intriguing to me, but then it dawned on me. As educators, we tell students, “there are no stupid questions,” whether we believe it or not. Some teachers even laugh about the “stupid questions” they get in class (I know, not you 😉). But this post made me think, how often do teachers ask “stupid questions?”

“Stupid” is a very harsh word. However, there are questions that do not inspire thinking, and those questions are not helpful to students or teachers. Ultimately, teachers are preparing students to think critically. In order to do that, students must be able to think beyond what Google has to offer and process information themselves. To do that, training begins in the classroom.

So, as a teacher, how do you know if you are inspiring thinking. Consider these questions – and we’ll start with the obvious:

  1. Can students Google your answer? Now, to be fair, everything is on Google, BUT, everything is not readily available. A recall question – ‘what happened in the beginning of The Kite Runner’ does not require a student to actually comprehend the text. Instead, a student only needs to remember. Instead, ask ‘how does the first chapter of the novel frame the text? impact the reader?’ With this line of questioning, students can Google The Kite Runner, but they may not even be able to find that answer with research, if at all.
  2. When is the last time you used question stems to plan instruction? There are several different lists of common core question stems. Kids at the Core is one place to check.
  3. How familiar are you with Bloom’s and or DOK? When you lesson plan, one of these should be at your side.
  4. How are your students performing on your summative assessments compared to district or state assessments? There should be consistency between the different instruments. However, if a student is earning an ‘A’ in your class, but is not proficient on district or state assessments, this means that the student has earned an ‘A’ in your class because he/she has done everything you have asked. Unfortunately, what you have asked them to do may not be the equivalent of what they should be able to do. Therein lies a rigor issue.

This parent’s comment is quite poignant. As a matter of fact, it inspires thinking, and cannot be found on Google.

Student Learning Stations

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If you are not using learning stations in your classroom, you are really missing out! Whenever I used stations, I was always beyond pleased with the outcome. Student engagement was up, and I was able to help my more introverted students who would not ask for help in the bigger group setting. Once I saw how well the stations worked, I used them all the time, especially in preparation for state testing.

Things to Consider

Before setting up my stations and re-arranging the class, I always asked myself a few questions:

  • Were students all completing the same activity, but with varying levels of rigor?
  • Did I want several different activities happening at once? Would students rotate through stations and complete different tasks at each?
  • Did I need a station where I worked with small groups of students, or were all stations for students to work independently with my rotating support?

After answering those questions, I was ready to plan the lesson(s). Depending on the goal, there were a few ways to arrange the class:

Student Stations

Using this method, direct instruction was more beneficial because it was like teaching a class with a smaller student-teacher ratio, and we know how amazing that can be for teachers and students.

Another option was to eliminate the direct instruction, and place everyone in small groups with different activities like below.

Student Stations1

Students would get a certain amount of time at each station and rotate when the timer went off. Could I have just given students different assignments when the timer went off… yes, but it would not have been nearly as effective. Because students were allowed to get up and move, it helped them mentally prepare to do something different. There was a moment for socialization and interaction with people outside of their groups, and, for those students who may not have been interested in the current station, there was a possibility that they were moving to a station with something that interested them.

The last way I grouped students was by ability:

Student Stations 2

I know, I know. Hold your horses. This worked out VERY well. By giving students the same assignment with varying levels of rigor, I was able to challenge my advanced students (you know, the ones everyone seems to forget about), push my proficient students, and work closely with my approaching and struggling students. I even had a special lesson plan to help me plan the differentiation. You can download that lesson plan for free here.

With a rolling chair, I would move between the two back groups and support students through their activities. If I had done it correctly, when I gave a formative assessment, everyone would do better on the skill, regardless of original proficiency level.

The Moral of the Story

If you are not using student learning stations, I encourage you to give them a try. Then, come back and tell us how they went in the comments.

Happy Stationing!

Secondary ELA: Analyzing Characters with Graphic Organizers

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Teaching students to analyze anything can be a daunting task. So when students have to make sense of all of the characters in a short story or novel, and THEN analyze them, the frustration can reach a boiling point for both the teacher and the student. To mitigate these frustrations, graphic organizers can be a tremendous help.

In the classroom, I remember all of the organizers my students had to create by hand as I drew them on the board. Then, using the Gradual Release Model of Responsibility, we would walk through them so that students could really flesh out their characters and ideas, and support that with evidence from the text. Once we were able to do all of that, we were ready for the hard part – writing the analysis.

Today, I have eliminated much of the frustration by creating an Analyzing Characters Organizer Pack.

character cover.pngPicture1


Included, are 6 graphic organizers, a table of contents with instructions on how to use each, directions on using the Gradual Release Model of Responsibility, the Common Core Standards the activities are aligned with, AND learning targets.





The activities can be used for any secondary ELA classroom. There are a variety of ways to use the organizers including whole-class, independent practice, small groups, or stations.


If you are looking for an engaging way to teach students how to analyze characters, check it out. I found that once students were given opportunities to practice the skill in different ways, the outcome was increased engagement and greater achievement.

Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

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The Gradual Release of Responsibility Model systematically transitions the responsibility of learning from the teacher to the student through four different phases. At each phase, the teacher and student share different responsibilities that decrease for the teacher and increase for the student as the class progresses through the model.

Gradual Release - Roles - Small Image

Ideally, teachers would use this model in every lesson plan. Aside from the fact that it is just good teaching, it serves a few other purposes:

  1. Preparation and Planning– The I Do phase requires that the teacher use a think-aloud while modeling. In order to model the skill, the teacher has to not only thoroughly understand the content to be presented, but lesson planning and practice are required. Therefore, there is a level of preparation necessary that better equips the teacher to anticipate and answer questions students may have, thereby curtailing the modeling to adequately support the class. When this happens, instruction time is maximized.
  2. Application – During the We Do It  Together phase, students should start at application through guided practice and interactive activities that require their participation. Because students are included in understanding the expectation as well as the process, there are opportunities for clarification and questioning without penalty . Additionally, students are applying the skill with the assistance of the teacher AND their peers.  Most importantly, at this step, students are building confidence, and the teacher can identify possible frustrations before the student is required to apply the skill on his/her own.
  3. Collaboration – At the You Do It  Together step, students have taken notes, actively listened, and applied the skill. Now that they are ready to collaborate with a partner or small group, students can ask those questions they were too embarrassed or too shy to ask in front of the class. Here, students can share what they understand with their peer(s) and glean additional information as understood by someone their own age. I think about how many times I’ve watched a student explain something I’ve already explained 100 different ways, and for some reason, their explanation pulled all the pieces together for a student that still did not understand.
  4. Independent Practice – In the final stage of the model – You Do It Alone – students can independently display their level of understanding. Ultimately, it only matters if a student can complete the activity independently. When students make it to the final stage and they still cannot proficiently apply what they have learned, it is important for the teacher to understand exactly what the student needs and how to best help him or her.

Are you using the Gradual Release Model in your classroom?

Lesson Planning: Turning Standards into Learning Targets

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Common Core Standards are rigorously robust. Each standard is so layered, that there are many things a student needs to master in order to be proficient with the standard. As a result, there are a multitude of ways to assess student proficiency for each standard. When looking for ways to teach the standards, it is important that teachers know how to break the standard down, turn it into learning targets, and assess it in every way possible to ensure proficiency.

Standard Diagram

Consider the picture above. In order to adequately teach a standard, a teacher must first understand the purpose of the terms and the roles they play. Here I have created an example breaking down an ELA Common Core Standard:

The Standard
RL.9-10.2 Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.

The Learning Targets

  • I will be able to determine a central idea of a text.
  • I will be able to analyze the development of a central idea over the course of the text.
  • I will be able to analyze how a central idea emerges over the course of the text.
  • I will be able to analyze how a central idea is shaped over the course of the text.
  • I will be able to analyze how a central idea is refined by specific details in the text.
  • I will be able to provide an objective summary of the text.

The Question Stems

  • What is the central idea of the text?
  • What is the main idea?
  • Which of the following events support the development of the central idea over the course of the text?
  • Cite textual evidence to support development of the theme over the text.
  • What key details from the text shape and refine the central idea over the course of the text?
  • Write an objective summary of the text?
  • Which of the following is an objective summary of the text?
  • Analyze the central idea and its development ove rthe course of the text.

The Activities
In order to adequately teach this standard, it is important that there are several learning activities tailored to each individual target. Furthermore, formative assessments must be as varied as the learning targets. If you are looking for ways to expand your resources, try Googling Common Core ELA Question Stems. What you will find is that there are several places where you can download question stems for each standard, at each grade level. Remember, it is not until you teach AND assess students on all parts of the standard that you truly understand their level of mastery.

Secondary Reading Comprehension – Gradual Release

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Understanding that students may not have the skills they are “supposed” to have to navigate grade-level text is difficult on both students and teachers. For this reason, I always spent the beginning of the school year teaching my students reading strategies and comprehension skills that we would implement for the rest of the year. Instead of starting with a novel, we read short stories and informational text together. During the first month of school, I used the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model almost daily so that I had a better understanding of where my students were. I also wanted to make sure that they clearly understood the expectations.

A typical reading activity would look like the example below. For the purposes of the example, let’s say that we were reading a 5 paragraph essay.

Gradual Release Example

Reading the Text

I Do: Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model, I would model reading comprehension of the first paragraph with a think-aloud. We would discuss what I read, my understanding, and their understanding. 

We Do it Together: As a class, we would read the next 2-3 paragraphs. I would ask students what they were thinking as we read. Our discussion included understanding the text and how we arrived at the understanding.  

You Do it Together: Students read with a partner and repeated the process. At this point, students had watched me model, and they had practiced the skill with feedback and guidance. 

You Do It Alone: Lastly,  I would have students finish reading the last paragraph or 2 on their own. We would discuss the passage as a whole.

Applying Comprehension

I Do: Once I believed that students understood the passage, I would model answering the first question. In doing this, I would break down the question to model comprehension of what was being asked. Next, I evaluated my options. In choosing my answer, I was sure to show where I believed the text supported my answer.  Afterwards, we would discuss my choice. Before I shared the correct answer, I would ask students if they thought I was correct or incorrect. Why or why not?

We Do It Together: After modeling the application of comprehension, it was time to include students. We worked on the next 2 questions together, repeating the process, but with the students’ input. I made sure to ask clarifying questions as opposed to giving the answer. 

You Do It Together: From there, I had students do the next 1 or 2 questions with a partner. We then shared out our answers and discussed them. I found this to be most beneficial to students because it taught them how to analyze questions and support their answers with information from the text. 

You Do It Alone: In my opinion, this was the most important part of the model because if students could not apply the skill on their own, the activity had not been as fruitful as I had hoped. Educators have to remember that it is easy for students to hide in plain site when there are whole-class activities. However, working alone reveals all secrets. Therefore, I had students work independently to finish the questions. Once everyone finished, we discussed each answer together in the same way we had done with the others. 

The Big Picture

Teaching reading comprehension through modeling and guided practice proved to be invaluable to all parties involved. Once students mastered skills to help them independently comprehend text, I was able to cover more content and expose them to more information that would help them, not only in my class, but in all  other classes.