How do you ditch “safe teaching” when prepping for THE test?

How do you ditch -safe teaching- when prepping for THE test-

Often, teachers feel limited in teaching in creative and engaging ways in light of a high-stakes test. How can we manage that? (Public domain image via Pixabay.com)

In a recent blog post, I suggested that what we consider “safe teaching” might be risky teaching after all.

In this post, I talked about how all the traditional, overused teaching techniques — lectures, worksheets, etc. — are easy for students to ignore. And when they’re ignoring instruction, there might as well be no instruction going on for them.

But many teachers use those “safe teaching” strategies in hopes that they’ll work. I’ve found they’re especially used when teaching to a high-stakes test. If things don’t go well, they’ll have an instructional alibi. They might defend themselves, saying, “Well, I did X, Y and Z and they still didn’t learn it!”

I received an email from a 10th grade English teacher with the same concern I’ve heard many express: How do I use engaging, creative teaching techniques when there’s a test to prepare for? She was looking for examples she could share with her department.

Below is my response to her, and it’s my response to many teachers that share this same concern.

The truth is that I don’t have the answer for this issue. It’s one that teachers have grappled with since the advent of high-stakes testing. It think you’ll find that there’s no silver bullet, no exact answer to this challenge, because I don’t think one exists.

I would love to see your comments and suggestions about this struggle that many teachers face. Please consider adding a comment at the bottom of this post with your ideas. Thanks!

Thanks for your email. I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s a tough spot us teachers are in when we’re expected to prepare students for a high-stakes test and still want to do what’s best by them.

Here’s the heart of what I’m getting at. What so many of us have done for so long — lectures, worksheets, inauthentic activities — are becoming increasingly ineffective. It’s easy for a student to mentally check out of a lecture. They give less than their best on meaningless worksheets. Contrived activities don’t motivate them.

What I’m saying is that if we try something — anything! — to try to stimulate them in new and different ways, we’ll likely have more success.

I’m in a tough position to tell you exactly what to do to make this happen. I don’t know the 10th grade English curriculum very well, and I don’t know how you teach. Group projects could definitely work, but my guess is that pushing the stereotypical contrived projects — “do a poster together about this story we read” — probably won’t break through to them.

Some ideas:

  • Have them record a news broadcast as if they’re live at the scene of what you’re studying.
  • Let them create a fake text message/Twitter/social media conversation between two characters.
  • Have them create a map (digital or not) of the setting of the story you’re studying. If it’s fictional, make it up! If it’s a real place, create a real map (or use Google MyMaps or Google Maps Street View).
  • Have them make comparisons from life in the story to life in today’s world. i.e. How would Caesar’s relationship issues in the story manifest themselves in a high school? What would that look like?

Not everything has to be project-based, but I know that many of my most memorable lessons/activities from school were from projects we had to conceive and bring to completion.

Part of the problem in getting example activities and projects from me is that I’m giving you ideas that I’m passionate and excited about. I don’t know what your motivations are, and I don’t know your students’ motivations. You are much better positions to create some of these new ideas yourself. Explore your own personal passions and interests and see how those can be incorporated into lessons (because passion is contagious!). Find fun, interesting ways to sneak your students’ interests into lessons. Even if you don’t think they’re fun and interesting, your students might! (Plus, if you can’t come up with ways to incorporate their interests into lessons, you might try asking them. You never know what you’ll get from them!)

Many times, after hearing something like that, people will ask, “How do I even know if this stuff will work? What if I try something and it flops?”

The truth is that there probably will be failures. Some lessons will flop. That’s OK, though. I’ve found that two remarkable things happen when I try something new in class and it flops:

  • My students are very forgiving because at least we’re doing something different.
  • They’re stimulated by the novelty of whatever we’re doing, and even if the lesson isn’t designed well or is executed poorly, they still end up learning as much or more than from lessons they perceive as drudgery.

So, my hope is that you might try something new and different. Again, I’ve never been in your classroom and don’t know what day-to-day instruction looks like for you. But if you find that your students are bored with the status quo lessons and aren’t getting enough out of them, it sounds like you may not have much to risk by trying something different.

I hope this helps. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me back!


[reminder]How do you manage the struggle of doing creative, engaging teaching in light of a high-stakes test? What are your thoughts about managing this struggle?[/reminder]

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