Engaging classes vs. test prep: Can we have both?


Preparing students for standardized tests can make us feel like we’re teaching with an arm tied behind our backs. Can interesting, engaging lessons exist in this environment? I think we can’t afford not to teach that way. (Flickr / Globaloria)

Teachers are so buried in requirements, paperwork and other demands on their classroom time.

To make matters worse, high-stakes tests can sap the joy out of teaching very quickly. When there’s more content to cover than there is time to do it meaningfully, every day in class can feel like a threat to a teacher’s livelihood.

I saw this sentiment in a comment on a recent blog post, called “A framework for creating wildly engaging lessons.” In the post, I laid out my DITCH approach to teaching, creating classes that were different, innovative, tech-laden, creative and hands-on.

The author, anonymously named “frustrated teacher in Indiana,” said this:

Does anyone have any “wildly engaging lessons” for English 10 that also helps them pass these standardized tests? This is where I struggle. We have to meet certain criteria to ensure they pass their ECAs and none of the ECA is hands-on, innovative, creative, or interesting. Please help.

I totally get where Frustrated Teacher is coming from, and this is the frustrating part of the way the education system is set up.

We have teachers in classrooms doing amazing work as the foot soldiers, creating citizens that will guide our world into the future. Then, we have the ones at the top who aren’t familiar with a day in the life of a real, normal classroom (let alone an entire year of those days!). But they’re the ones that create “accountability” for students and teachers, and we’re the ones who have to deal with it.

It can completely sap the joy out of education.

I know teachers that, when it comes to selecting classes to teach, will lean toward classes that don’t have standardized tests tied to them even if they aren’t their least favorite classes to teach. They’re willing to forego what they’re passionate about to alleviate the stress and anxiety that comes with the assessment piece.

There’s something seriously wrong with all of this.

So, what do we do with Frustrated Teacher’s situation? He/she teaches English 10, and there’s a high-stakes end of course assessment to prepare for. The test isn’t different, innovative, creative, tech-laden or hands-on. How do we deal with that disconnect?

Just because the test is boring doesn’t mean that our class has to be.

Let’s take the “textbook” way many teachers prepare students for a test like that:

  • Lectures that are overfilled with content
  • Drill-and-kill worksheets
  • Lots of passive sitting

After teaching that way for several years, here’s the conclusion I came to:

Sometimes, this method of teaching is just as effective as doing nothing.

When students mentally check out of lectures, they’re not paying attention. They might as well not be there at all.

When students do drill-and-kill worksheets, they’re often finding the fastest way of getting through them without any meaningful learning that will make the content stick.

When students sit passively too long, neuroscience tells us that their brains become sedentary, too, and retention falls off.

Basically, by making our classes as boring as those tests, we’re not setting students up to succeed.

I know. I would give my boring grammar lectures in my Spanish classes and a day or two later, my students would act like they’d never seen that content before. I graded more half-hearted, rushed worksheets than I can count, and I had to wake up too many students slumped over in their desks.

I was teaching, but they weren’t learning.

Some people say they can’t afford to make their classes different, innovative, creative, tech-laden and/or hands-on. 

I say, I can’t afford not to.

Something as simple as a quick activity from GoNoodle activates students’ brains when things get monotonous. Moving class to a different location or mixing up seating can make things different.

In my classes, a few years ago, I knew my students were really into Vines (those six-second video clips that loop). We recorded short videos to illustrate vocabulary terms and showed them to the class. It was tech-laden: students recorded videos. It was innovative: I hadn’t tried it before and wanted something new. And students got to demonstrate their creativity.

If I had given them a worksheet to practice that vocabulary, it wouldn’t stick like that.

Think of all of the classes you took when you were a student. Then, think of what really stuck with you, what you really remember.

We can’t teach the exciting, memorable, mind-blowing lessons in class every day. But we can sometimes. And we can push our standard daily lessons a little in that direction.

I think Dave Burgess, author of “Teach Like a PIRATE,” said it best on this topic.

At some point in your career you have to decide if you care more about teaching to tests or teaching kids. My decision was made a long time ago. I teach kids.

The funny thing about that is this: when you focus on teaching students instead of teaching to the test, often your students’ test scores improve.

[reminder]What’s your take on this disconnect, between preparing students for standardized tests and creating engaging lessons? How do you manage it?[/reminder]

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