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Teaching Reading - Crunch Time Tips for Testing

High-stakes testing means different things for different teachers in different settings. Let me share with you the setting that I teach in to better understand why I address testing the way I do.

In the state of Florida, in order for students to graduate high school, they are required to pass their 10th Grade reading assessment or a concordant score on the ACT or SAT. My population of students is typically reading two-three grade levels below. They are 98% minorities, 50% immigrants, and from low socio-economic households, so meeting this state mandate is a must for them. So it does not matter how I feel about these tests, I need to make sure my students are equipped to master them because for many of them, their quality of life is dependent on it.

So here are some things that I do to help my students make learning gains.

It is crucial that they use their time wisely since most of their tests are timed. Especially for struggling readers since they spend the bulk of their time reading and not leaving enough time to answer questions. Much of the focus during crunch time is helping them to be strategic readers by doing the following:


Previewing the text is key to determining what type of passage they are reading. If you preview and recognize that the text is fictional, then your focus is to recognize the development of the characters’ traits, their motivation, theme, conflict, and other plot elements since that is what the questions will more than likely be about.

Questions for non-fiction are typically aimed at the author's viewpoints, arguments, organizational patterns, or central ideas. You may ask, why does it matter and this is how I explain it to my students;Your brain needs a little assistance to know what to key in on as you read. Our brains are doing a million things to keep us breathing, sitting, and alert while it is also reading which in itself requires a heavy load for it to do. Narrow down for your brain what to focus in on by recognizing the type of text and say to yourself, “I need to look for fictional details” or “I need to look for non-fictional details.” 

Download the FREE What Readers Notice Reference Sheet I provide my students to reference as they are working!

Reading with a Purpose

By April, my students can finish this sentence that I say repeatedly, “it doesn’t make sense to read to the end then realize you don’t understand what you read.” A good majority of my students are what I call word callers. They can read every word on the page and they believe that is all reading is. They get to the end and lack a deep understanding and sometimes, not even a surface-level understanding of the text. 

So we practice chunking the text by stopping and asking questions about a section. Chunking could be at the paragraph level or even sentence level.  The goal is for them to recognize when comprehension breaks down and fix it then and thereby identifying what is causing the breakdown instead of waiting till the end. 

Students are also taught to process what they read by doing a quick summary of 5 words or less. They begin the year annotating or writing in the margin but over time I remove that requirement to write it once I realize that it is becoming an automatic practice in their heads. Most state testing platforms are not built to accommodate students annotating on the passage which is why the written annotation is not the end goal.

Decoding Questions

Have you ever read a student’s response and asked yourself, “what question were they answering?” If you are like me then the answer is MANY MANY TIMES! Because most of the year, I only do free-response short answers, I know students struggle with knowing what a question is asking them. 

We spend time teaching a skill but that skill can be asked a number of different ways on a test, so empowering students with the following steps helps them to think through the question. 

  1. Teaching academic language such as convey, or address.

  2. Having students underline keywords in the question.

  3. Put the question in their own words

  4. Answer the question in their minds before looking at any choices 

Lastly, in order to help our students make gains on reading assessments, there are some tips that I would like to share aimed at teaching best practices.

Knowing and Understanding the Standards

Even after years of teaching the same standards, I still pull out my state Item Specifications, review the wording of the standard, as well as to look at the sample questions and how the standard could be asked depending on the question type. In Florida, students are not just assessed using multiple-choice questions but also question types such as multi-select and drag and drop.

Also, we get caught up in remediating missed skills from prior grades, and we forget to hone in on the required skills for our grade-level standard. Case in point, let’s look at the following Common Core Standard:

CCCS.R.5 Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.

Now ask yourself, have your secondary students only been identifying cause and effect, problem-solution, or sequence text structure or have they also analyzed the role a sentence plays in a paragraph or the contribution a paragraph makes to the development of a passage?

Grade 5 requires students to “Compare and contrast the overall structure (e.g., chronology, comparison, cause/effect, problem/solution) of events, ideas, concepts, or information in two or more texts.” Meanwhile, Grade 7 requires students to “Analyze the structure an author uses to organize a text, including how the major sections contribute to the whole and to the development of the ideas” and Grade 9-10 requires students to “analyze in detail how an author's ideas or claims are developed and refined by particular sentences, paragraphs, or larger portions of a text (e.g., a section or chapter).”

Notice the staircase in what is required of the students and the difference by grade level which is why it is essential that as teachers, we know the standards and prepare students appropriately.

Depth Of Knowledge Levels

Another key strategy is using crunch time wisely and spending it where it will be most effective. Most teachers do not have enough time to cover all the standards much less time to go back over them so figuring out which standards to focus on in our limited time is key. 

That is why, my students only do short answer responses the majority of the year because as we work on our reading skills we are also working on our writing skills. Their writing score is a big chunk of their overall reading score and when you think about what is required of them to produce an evidence-based essay, then you recognize it is a DOK Level 4. The value of a DOK Level 4 question will weigh more than simpler tasks. 

In a nutshell, if a question requires one step of thinking it falls low in terms of depth of knowledge but a question that requires a student to process multiple ideas and connect them are higher on the depth of knowledge chart. For the writing task, students are asked to read and comprehend, choose evidence, identify and analyze patterns in the evidence across multiple sources, and then create/ synthesize a written product. That is the epitome of a demanding task. There are also reading standards that require a deeper level of thinking from students and those are primarily the Integration of Knowledge and Ideas standards. When deciding what texts to use, choose to use paired texts so that students can connect ideas across them and analyze each author’s claims or perspectives.

Thematic units throughout the year especially in book clubs are a great instructional tool to have students constantly thinking through multiple perspectives on the same topic. My favorite thematic unit is one we do on the role of Upstanders which you can find in my TPT store. 

Small-Group Instruction

I am a big proponent of small group instruction even at the secondary level. In order for students to make adequate learning gains, their needs have to be met. Some students need remediation at the phonics level, some need fluency skills, and others need enrichment at the comprehension level. During crunch time, most of my instructional block is broken down into small group time with the exception of the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes. For the rest of the year, there is whole group guided instructional time as well. The goal is learning gains and until we drill down to the root of the issue and address them, the students will produce the same result. 

The last tip is to always keep students at the front of our instructional practices. Testing season can be nerve-wracking for them and us and it happens at the time of the year when we are ready to bolt to summer break. So if it is packet after packet, they will become disengaged. There is still a place for novels paired with non-fictional texts during crunch time. There is still time for high engagement by making test prep fun by gamifying. Yes, it is necessary to drill skills but we shouldn’t drill our students to boredom.

Huge thanks to Samantha for sharing her wisdom and experience with us! Samantha spent the first seven years in a high school working as an Intensive Reading teacher before moving to middle school as an Instructional Coach. She's now back in the classroom teaching 6-8th grade, covering everything from Cambridge English to Intensive Reading.

Want to read more from Samantha?

Check out her fabulous blog where she shares so many helpful tips, strategies, and books.

Also, be sure to check out her TeachersPayTeachers store where she shares engaging resources that help students find success with reading and writing.

Diverse and Inclusive Short Story Ideas

In a short story rut? Tired of the same short story anthologies that you have used for years? Want to add some new voices to your collection?

I have spent the last several years on the hunt for DIVERSE and INCLUSIVE short stories to add to my teaching. I still love using the classics, however, I know the importance of including a variety of voices and experiences into my teaching and have had fun looking for and using modern short stories written by an amazingly talented and diverse group of authors.

One of the first things I do when I start a short story unit is to talk about the short stories students have read previously.  I might have to prompt them with the titles I know they read in previous years at my school, but we come up with a list of short stories they remember.  We discuss as a class who the authors are and whose voices are most represented in the stories they have read.  It is then easy to generate a list of whose voices are missing... and whose voices they would like to hear in the stories we read in class.  From the list I will look for stories that I think will pique their interest and share a voice they might not have heard before. 

Not only do I want my students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and the stories they read, but I want them to hear and read about the experiences of others. I think learning about others people's lives and their achievements, challenges, and beliefs helps students build empathy and understanding.  Many of my students have such a narrow view of the world that I want to expand and challenge their thinking by exposing them to voices that they may not have heard before.

The great thing about mixing up your short story unit and moving towards a more inclusive collection of stories is that regardless of what short story you teach in class, you can still cover all of the elements of short stories.  I love to use my SHORT STORY GRAPHIC ORGANIZERS to help students review the elements of plot, setting, characterization, conflict, theme, mood, tone, and more! The great thing about the organizers is that they can be used with ANY SHORT STORY!  

Grab this FREE GRAPHIC ORGANIZER to use as a jumping-off point for a deeper analysis of any short story.  It's a quick and easy review activity after reading any short story.  

Here are some of my favorite short story anthologies to use with middle - high school students.  Full disclosure - I have not read all of the stories in each book as I'm slowly working my way through them all... it's an ongoing project. However, these are all books that I am proud to have on my bookshelf for students to read during silent reading or to borrow.  I have used stories from several of these books with success in my classroom.  Click HERE to download a copy of the list I have made.

It is so important to me that all of my students can see and find themselves in the pages of a book or short story.  I am lucky to teach where we do not have a prescribed curriculum and I do not have to use a district-provided set of novels or short stories. I have the freedom to find and use stories and novels that I think will work in my classroom.  

Unfortunately, I do not have class sets of any of these books - I read the stories aloud with students and we discuss them as a class.  One of my goals for next year is to get a class set or two of several of these books to add to my school's book collection.  

For more specific short story recommendations I recommend checking out this resource from Nouvelle ELA

Happy Reading!

Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

When it comes to teaching writing in the middle school ELA or high school English class, it can oftentimes feel like there is just so much content to teach. And in all honesty, that is entirely true.

We simply do not have enough time to teach students every single thing they need to know in order to be the best writers they can be. However, we can focus on essential skills one at a time to build strong writers.

When I first teach a type of writing to my students, I provide direct instruction and activity-based assignments so that students have an understanding of the genre of writing and what is expected of them. At the beginning of the new unit, I use this ELA writing instructional resource to directly teach students about either argument, narrative, or informational writing, and then we spend time each day working on developing the information using some of the included writing graphic organizers.

In addition to sharing the above resource that I use for teaching writing, this blog post will also include three strategies to help you improve your writing instruction.

Teaching Writing Tip 1: Simplify it and Break It Down

Teaching Writing Tip 1: Simplify it and Break It Down

One of the most vital steps in teaching writing to middle school and high school students is simplifying and breaking down the writing instruction into small, manageable chunks. One of the easiest ways to do this by focusing on less. Rather than having my students write an entire essay or paragraph, I will ask for three sentences: a topic sentence that answers the prompt, an evidence sentence with a properly introduced and cited quote, and one commentary sentence for an explanation.

By breaking down the writing process into small, manageable chunks, students are less intimidated and more focused on demonstrating their writing abilities.

You can read more about how I break down writing instruction and snag a free download by reading this post about teaching writing in the secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching Writing Tip 2: Use Sentence Frames

Teaching Writing Tip 2: Use Sentence Frames

One of the most effective ways to scaffold writing instruction is by providing students with meaningful sentence frames. There are so many benefits to using sentence frames in the classroom, and even high school students benefit from them as well.

When teachers include sentence frames during their writing instruction, they are teaching students HOW to academically organize and write their ideas.

To read more about using sentence frames in the classroom, you’ll want to visit this blog post about scaffolding writing instruction through the use of sentence frames. This blog post also contains sentence frames that you can use today in your classroom as well as a free sentence frame download!

Teaching Writing Tip 3: Incorporate Grammar

Teaching Writing Tip 3: Incorporate Grammar

In addition to simplifying writing assignments and using sentence frames, another key area to help students become stronger writers is by focusing on grammar. When students know how the parts of speech work together and when student understand how language works, they will naturally become stronger writers.

The three biggest grammar lessons that I’ve found help students improve their writing abilities are the parts of speech, dependent and independent clauses, and sentence structure. By focusing a little bit of time on these conventions, your students will become stronger writers.

You can read more about how I incorporate these grammar lessons in my classroom and download a free parts of speech interactive notebook activity by reading this post about helping students improve their writing skills by focusing on grammar.

After incorporating these three strategies into your writing instruction, you might also be interested in three more tips for teaching writing and three strategies to boost student writing.

Teaching Writing Resources:
Writing a Persuasive Essay Portfolio - by the SuperHERO Teacher
MLA Style and Format - by Tracee Orman
Writing Activities - by Presto Plans

Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

Poetry Lessons for Online & In Class


Jackie, from Room 213

National poetry month is coming up soon, and this year you may have more than the usual challenge when it comes to getting students excited about it. In a previous post, I shared ways to make poetry more accessible to students, but many of those activities were based around things we could do in the good old days - when kids could be moving around and close to each other. This time I'm offering ideas for poetry lessons and activities that can be used both online and in class.

Let Youtube help you with your poetry lessons

First of all, we don’t always have to do all the singing and dancing - especially now when we’re getting so tired. Luckily, Ted Ed has all kinds of things on youtube that can help you, from readings of poems to actual lessons that you can use. Poetry is meant to be read aloud and you can find some wonderful readings that will allow you to just sit back and listen along with your students. You can send these links to kids who are learning at home, or you can use them for your live mini-lessons too.

I've curated a list of some of my favorites, complete with all of the links you need. Grab it here.

Teaching the Language of Poetry

Whether you are online or in class, students will need to know the language of poetry. And wherever you're teaching, it's always a good idea to do this through an active learning process, rather than a passive one.

Instead of sending students a handout of terms, you can pair or group your students and assign each grouping a poetic device. If they are in school, get them to create a poster with the definition, some examples from literature, and some original examples that they write on their own. This could also be done online, using a one-slider like the one below:

One-sliders for poetic devices

Once they are done, each group can use the one-slider to teach the term to their classmates. You could follow this with a gallery walk (actual or online) where the students have to record the definition of each word and one or two examples. Click here to get tips for doing online gallery walks.

You could also use some Figurative Language Challenges to help students have some fun and learn to really understand how poets use these devices. Once they learn to use figurative language themselves, it's much easier to figure out how and why a writer uses figurative language, and analyzing will be come easier. 

The Metaphor Challenge is perfect for this and is ready to use online.

Introducing poetry online or in class

By the time kids get to secondary they know what poetry is - or at least they think they do. For most, it's akin to deciphering hieroglyphics and something they dread. However, it doesn't have to be that way.

Former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, has stated that many people's absence from poetry is based almost completely on how poetry was presented to them in school. Often that absence is based on a bad memory, because when most people are exposed to poetry in school it’s often anxiety-inducing.

And how do we reduce that anxiety? First of all, don't start with a bunch of difficult poems. Ease into your study of poetry with ones that are more accessible. Then, slowly scaffold the skills your students will need to tackle the harder poems, using ones that they find easier to understand (more on that below!)

I have a new bundle of lessons that help you introduce the concept of studying poetry here. In it, kids work together to tackle the question "What Is Poetry?" and then what it means to analyze one. Each of the lessons is in an engaging format designed to be used either online or in class.

Use poetry brackets to create buzz

The perfect time to do this is in March, when March Madness is happening, but this is an activity you can use anytime you want to expose kids to a variety of poems - and to get them excited about some of them. It's also an activity that is easily adaptable for both in school and online learning. You just need to choose a selection of poems, create a bracket, and let the games begin!

There are many free templates you can use for this, like the one Secondary Sara has below. I also have a bundle of activities all ready to use that focus on ballads and inspirational poems. Each resource starts with quarter finals with four poems per side, and many options for implementing the activity with your students. You could use it to fill one class or an entire week!

Poetry Bracket

Scaffold the skills for poetry analysis - tricks for online and in class

Analyzing a poem - especially a complex one - can be overwhelming. That's why I like to take it one step at a time, and let student focus on a few things at once.

So, I might give them a poem and ask them to look at the sound devices only, or just the imagery and metaphors. Then, with the next poem, we can add in another layer. That way, students can build the skill of seeing how individual techniques can create meaning in a poem.

Here's something you can try: if you're in school, copy a poem and paste it into the middle of chart paper. Group your students and put each group in charge of one thing: sound and rhythm for one group, sensory imagery for another, figurative language for another, etc. Instruct each group to annotate the poem looking for their assigned technique only. Then, they will brainstorm ideas for how a device contributes to the poem.

Finally. each group can present their conclusions to the class; then, you could show them how each group's ideas could fit together to create an analytical essay.

If you're online, assign each group a slide or two with the poem on it and have them do the same thing using that format.

If you like the idea of scaffolding this skill, I have analyzing poetry stations that are all already to go. It's a resource that comes with in class stations, as well as ones that you can share with your students online.


Let students have fun with poetry

Poetry can be a wonderful source of inspiration and comfort for us humans. Unfortunately, when students see it as something that only fusty old English teachers enjoy, they miss out on something that could give them joy. 

In a few weeks, I'll be starting poetry with my tenth graders. I'm going to start with my inspirational poems bracket and then ask the kids to find and share a poem that inspires them. We will use them for discussion and response only because if we pick the meat off the bones every time we read a poem, then that inspirational piece can be lost. Our next step will be to explore the poetry in ordinary items, with a unit on odes that praise everyday things.

However, we will move into analysis, because sometimes taking a moment to figure out a difficult line can shed some light on a poem, and it can transform from difficult to inspiring. We just need to find a balance.

And when we find that balance, the high school poetry experience can be a thing of beauty.

These beautiful people have some amazing poetry resources for use in class and online too:

Tracee Orman, Write Like a Poet

Addie Education, Poetry Activity Bundle

Presto Plans, Digital Poetry Writing Bundle

Secondary Sara, Free Poetry Madness Bracket

The Daring English Teacher, Digital Analysis Task Cards

The Classroom Sparrow, Poetry Mini-Book

The SUPERhero Teacher, Poetry Journal

Nouvelle ELA, Poetry Escape Room Review

Thanks for reading! I really hope you found some ideas that you can use to make your life easier. You can get more tips and ideas from me right here.

Teaching Symbolism


Teaching Symbolism
by Tracee Orman

Symbols take many forms in literature and non-fiction: characters/people, objects, events, places, and more. Writers will often use symbols to introduce, convey, and reinforce a theme. And even though symbols are all around us and used daily to relay messages, students struggle with identifying, analyzing, and simply understanding symbols in literature.

To help our students, we can take a few simple steps before and during reading that will allow them to gain deeper meaning into the themes and the text overall.

We use symbolism every day. Emojis are probably the most widely used symbols for communicating various messages, emotions, and ideas. It helps to point out to students that they are already utilizing symbolism in this way. 

Ask students to remember the last emoji they posted on social media or in a text message. What did it imply to the recipient? Did it need context for its message to be clear? For example, a symbol such as a cake with candles 🎂 doesn’t really need context to understand it’s implying a birthday. But a bomb symbol 💣 would obviously need a frame of reference to understand its intended message. 

Explain to your students that symbols in literature come with many context clues that help readers understand the meanings.

Students love puzzles and games. Framing symbolism as a puzzle or mystery to be figured out can help with the buy-in. Tell them there are clues scattered throughout the text that will help them solve the mystery. 

Direct them to look closely at:
• the title of the work
• physical objects
• characters
• events
• places

They should also make note of any recurring images, items/objects, or past events. Repetition of any of these is a big clue that it’s a symbol. 

Download this FREE handout (also includes digital version for sharing on a secured site) to help guide your students while they are reading. It can be used with any novel, short story, play, or poem.

Once students have identified a symbol, they should look for context clues for the writer’s meaning. Sometimes the writer will imply the meaning and readers must infer it. Have your students look for the use of figurative language such as metaphors. Using the comparison, students can infer the meaning of the symbol. 

For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the author writes, "My father was particularly fond of mockingjays. When we went hunting, he would whistle or sing complicated songs to them and, after a polite pause, they’d always sing back. ...there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me.” (pages 43-44) Collins uses a comparison between the narrator’s father and the mockingjay pin. Students can infer that the mockingjay pin becomes of symbol of security in this moment.

It’s important to note, of course, that symbols can evolve and change throughout the text. In The Hunger Games, for instance, the mockingjay’s meaning will transform and deepen by the end of the novel and series. 

Symbols can take on different meanings for different readers, so it’s essential to keep an open mind when students are analyzing the text. There have been many, many times throughout the years where students have analyzed the text in ways I had not considered. Our ultimate goal should be to allow them to find that deeper meaning and understanding of the text rather than shoot it down because it’s not what’s on the answer key. 

If you are looking for more examples and details, I have a Google Slides presentation (it can be downloaded as a PowerPoint, as well) that covers everything here with detailed examples and a student handout. 

My Coffee Shop friends also have some excellent resources to help teach symbolism. Check them out here:

Symbolism and Allegory by Nouvelle ELA

Literary Analysis Flip Book by The Daring English Teacher

Thanks for reading, Friends!

Writing Beyond the Test: An Approach to Preparing for Standardized Tests

I am an instructional coach, and a few weeks ago, I was doing a little grading with one of my teachers. After reading the “nth” response, a feeling settled in the depths of my gut - it was a mix between nostalgia and panic. I felt like I was on a loop reading and rereading the same response over and over again. No, I am not complaining that too many students accurately answered the question or that students were cheating. I was experiencing the impact of teaching students R.A.C.E. (i.e., Restate the question, Answer, Cite evidence, Explain evidence)  to answer open-ended responses.  As a result, the phrases: my evidence is, the text says, and this proves repeatedly cycled through each answer without any depth of ideas in their writing. I wondered,  “how did we get here?”

The impact of high stakes tests on testing practices 

Honestly, I believe most teachers (at least at my school) have administrators deeply invested in how well they perform on yearly standardized tests. To be clear, the roots and reality of standardized testing are racist, and it only takes a quick Google search to read the reports and data. And, the test culture is real. There’s hype, weeks (or even months) of preparation, giant countdown posters, pep rallies, and mock assessments all aimed at improving student performance. There is nothing wrong with getting students excited about school. There is a problem when schools get bogged down in student labels and numbers. 

To achieve results, teachers have curated an endless list of tips and strategies for students. Again, there’s nothing wrong with rooting for students and providing a roadmap to navigate a high-stakes test. However, we must remember that scoring well on a standardized writing assignment doesn’t assure excellence. The high-stakes era of testing has caught countless teachers between a rock and a hard place. Many teachers feel under siege with testing agendas that have detained their creativity and confiscated their autonomy. This experience is exacerbated in under-resourced communities where deficit-based descriptors are often used to mischaracterize students and teachers, and administrators feel the weight of needing “perform” on tests to prevent the state from taking over, or in worst-case scenarios, closing schools. Most importantly, the push for favorable outcomes has polluted the student writing experience with practice tests and feedback rooted in scoring well versus developing voice. 

Does it have to be this way?

Let’s talk R.A.C.E 

I’m leaning out of the binary thinking that reviews everything through the right/wrong or yes/no lens. My thoughts on the popular writing strategy are in the “yes/and” category. Disclaimer: I am not blaming teachers who use this strategy. Instead, I hope to invite educators to consider how the method is utilized and the long-term impact on students’ writing. In short, I want to discuss this as a community because that’s how I learn. 

When I taught the RACE strategy, I abandoned research-proven strategies that I knew about writing. Yikes. I leaned heavily on product-based versus process-based writing. The impact stifled student’s creativity and voice in writing. Students became bored, and my class lost its “magic.” Sometimes, in our effort to prepare students for on-demand or standardized writing, we disconnect from the heart of writing in favor of quick tips (e.g., sentence starters, formulas).  Some teachers believe this helps students succeed on the test and don’t consider the long-term impact. No shame, this was me.

Unlearning and Relearning 

There’s a part of me struggling to accept the need for students to take standardized tests. And I know that at least at my school, that’s not an option - yet. So the question is, can teachers effectively cultivate student writing skills in a way that is transferable to standardized tests? 

I *think* so, but it starts with a strong conceptual understanding of who we are writing for and why we write. As a writing teacher, I try to view “test-taking” as a genre and apply the same thinking when navigating standardized tests. There are writing skills required to demonstrate “proficiency” on tests that are consistent with all good writing habits. What if our pedagogical approach was rooted in preparing students to write in various situations and for a variety of audiences? Writing proficiency exams would simply become another “genre” for students to study and showcase their broad repertoire of writing skills and understandings. 

In preparation, teachers would provide opportunities to understand the genre and implement strategies aligned to the purpose and audience. Easy peasy, right? This reorientation takes time and a commitment to unlearning. The papers of students I mentioned at the top of this piece were students I taught for three years. It’s a hard reality to see what stuck with them throughout the years. So what’s next?

3 Ideas for Writing Beyond the Test 

A Note. I don’t want to lose sight of my core belief that standardized tests mostly benefit testing companies with unimaginable profit lines. These tests don’t capture our students’ genius, in particular Black, Indigenous children of color. They’ve held gatekeeping abilities to funding and opportunities for schools and students, and they don’t always paint a clear picture of teaching and learning in a school. 

1. Study mentor texts. There are so many resources from previously released tests that can serve as mentor texts. I utilize them to showcase craft moves, structure, and organization. When it comes to constructed short responses, we dial in on how evidence is introduced and explained. For longer writing pieces, we study real-world texts (e.g., articles, book excerpts, blogs) and read like writers. It’s low stakes, and we can discuss questions like: 

a. What does the author do well? 
b. Which parts are easy to understand and which are not so easy? 
c. Does the author provide details that enhance the text? 
d. Which craft moves are included?

2. Leverage the writing process.  I will admit that this is where I fell short as a teacher. By overly focusing on the strategy, I lost the purpose. With all writing, we start with a topic. I teach students to interpret the prompt by determining what the question is asking them to do and how they will do it. This action is similar to the prewriting step, except the topic and purpose are stated in the prompt. 

Next, students enter the drafting phase and start organizing their ideas by thinking about their main points and where they will get the evidence. Then it’s off to drafting using the plan created. After students draft, it’s about making revisions and unlearning. I leverage mini-lessons to to help students enhance the readability and cohesion of their writing. This might look like reviewing word choice, striking through unnecessary words and phrases (e.g. my evidence is, this proves, this shows), and/or inserting additional information. Lastly, they make edits with grammar and spelling in mind and finalize the piece. 

3. Teach transferable skills. Lastly, this is all about transferability. In the spirit of transparency, I keep it real with the kids. Like really real. I empower students to reflect on testing and why it exists? We read a few different articles with multiple perspectives and I allow students to draw and challenge their conclusions. Taking a critical eye to a complex topic is a muscle I want students to flex. When thinking about raising our collective consciousness, that comes with opportunities to see, name, and challenge oppression. When students know what they are facing and why it does something to the will to persist and resist. It’s so powerful! 

There is a transferable teaching statement that is attached to every mini-lesson. This keeps things consistent with our writing block and focuses on students’ skills to hone when taking a standardized test and beyond. 

I am currently exploring bringing real-world topics that my students are interested in and using them to refine skills and get them a little practice for the test. I will note that it’s saddening to prepare students for a standardized test in a global pandemic, but this is our reality.  What are your thoughts about preparing students for standardized writing tests? I’d love to connect in the comments on this Instagram post!

Interested in engaging your writers in real-world topics that can also address skills in the test?  Try out this new product line of "REAL Writing." 

Getting Closer to a Self-Grading English Class


There are even more mutually beneficial reasons to automate an English class than you might think, especially now.  

In addition to simply using time-savers to prevent teacher burnout, we know that instant feedback - especially for formative assessment - is better for student learning. Letting go of grading certain tasks also frees me up to be a better teacher elsewhere; I'd rather pour my energy into giving better feedback on their writing than lose time on certain kinds of tasks. 

But three other unique scenarios recently happened to me, too. 

  1. Some teachers are working harder than they have to in a school year that's already hard enough. I've met some justified teachers who are so desperate to be away from their screens (and return their students to paper-based activities) that they aren't willing or able to optimize their processes or their time. Likewise, some teachers right now are so understandably overwhelmed with meeting digital learning demands that they're converting their norms to a screen without being able to pause and ask if there's another option. 
  2. We have to be even more ready to let a substitute teacher take over. First, I was told that I needed to have at least 2 weeks of DIGITAL substitute teacher plans ready to use in a moment's notice, just in case I got COVID. Then, my school had a tough time acquiring a substitute teacher for my maternity leave for this spring. Therefore, my sub plans had to not only be hybrid-learning ready... but I needed students to complete legitimate, authentic tasks in my absence that a non-English teacher could possibly assess. (No pressure.) 
  3. I've accepted how pervasive it is for other kinds of teachers to have help. In other grade levels outside of secondary English, there are varying levels of help with grading, prep, or other elements of teaching: professors have TAs, and lucky primary teachers sometimes have parent helpers or paraprofessionals who can help with anything from bulletin boards to grading to preparing materials. Why is it inherently acceptable for other educators to receive help, but secondary ones feel the need to shoulder so much alone? This realization has made me feel even more comfortable embracing digital "helpers" in the form of a well-used program or app. 

Even if or when education fully returns back to "normal," our new normal will still allow (if not require) technology, and teaching is never going to be easier. Just because English teachers knew there would be lots of grading when we signed up for this job doesn't mean we have to constantly pour burnout levels of feedback onto everything that's turned in, especially when not every assignment weighs equally in our gradebooks. 

So, what kinds of websites, software, tools, or best practices are aiding student learning in my absence? What can we all do to reorganize how we spend our time to be better teachers and more balanced humans? 

Here are a few of my favorites, divided into categories!

Non-Tech Strategies

Before we dive into tech, here's a brief review of some commonly-advised strategies to reduce a grading pile:

1. Can students present during class (or via video)? Depending on your safety protocols and how you might be using videos (like pre-recorded student speeches), some presentations are 100% worth all the days spent presenting in class. My all-time favorites are the real-world "15 Minutes of Fame" project, my Debate Unit, a poetry slam, or dramatic readings of famous poems and speeches?

2. Does it have to be an essay? Can literary analysis happen through a group presentation instead of individual essays? Can students create an infographic? Can the unit occur through a game board format and be broken up into smaller steps? 

3. Write Now, Grade Later: Not every piece of writing has to be graded. Why not assign a diagnostic essay or a benchmark narrative that students can save for later (and compare/contrast with the writing they create after your instruction)? Then you can assess two pieces of writing at once with the same or less time!

4. Let Someone Else Judge: I sometimes beg real-world judges to come give feedback on student writing. They're not grading FOR me, but they're possibly giving faster feedback (before or during the time I will be grading). Try an introduction to newspapers PBL unit or this choice writing project in which students choose the contest to which they will submit. 

5. Let Students Teach: I've used this project before to let students be the ones to make an instructional video instead of me, for grammar and other topics. You'd be surprised at what students can learn (and how they pay attention to their peers) when taking on the role of teacher for a specific purpose!

6. Things you WANT to grade or read: Wait, hear me out! My all-time-favorite piece of writing to grade is when students turn in the reports of their Random Acts of Kindness project. (Talk about heart-melting!)

7. Change up reading assessments: Why not let students pick and present the article of the week, or grade public speaking and reading simultaneously through book talks

8. Can students grade themselves? ... not likely, but they CAN self-assess their work harder before turning it in, and they CAN track their own progress. Try these free self-assessment forms for public speaking (or adapt them to another area of ELA). 

Self-Grading Google Forms

Google Forms are the single most essential tool that I use to speed up the teaching and learning cycle, but I recently discovered that there are many teachers who automatically assume, "Since my school uses *THIS* website instead, I can't use Google Forms/Apps." 

Technically, you don't need to be a Google School, have Chromebooks, or even have student Google/Gmail accounts to still make and use a self-grading Google Form assessment! Using Google Forms for quizzes, diagnostic tests, and sometimes even the tests themselves are single-handedly saving my school year. 

I also had one pleasant surprise this school year. I experimented with having students (remote learning and in-person) complete tests for me on Google Docs versus Google Forms. In my small sample size, I did not see a statistically significant difference with test scores in one App or the other. Writing good directions (i.e. specifying exactly how long a short answer response should be) mattered much more than which medium was used.

TRY: We have been (or soon will be) using Google Forms in my room for things like...

  1. My entire grammar program - every single unit I've taught this year to 7th and 8th has been facilitated through Google Forms, whether it was the self-grading diagnostic test or any of the unit quizzes and tests
  2. Classic short stories - I teach this set of stories as very specific prep for the stories that they'll read in the next grade level. You can grab my unit OR take the concept to make your own by making the self-grading quizzes for other short stories of your choosing!
  3. Research skills - I pre-assess their understanding of MLA, credible sources, media bias, using Google search results, and more in my research diagnostic test before we commence our first epic research project. 
  4. Voting on poems - I'm going to celebrate National Poetry Month soon with the (FREE) Poetry Madness Bracket I used when COVID first started. It was a big hit with exposing students to poems and poets that they didn't already know, and getting to vote on favorites took a lot of the dread out of reading the list. 
  5. Vocabulary and Roots: Digitizing vocabulary assessments has been essential for faster feedback, both for my vocabulary program and the Greek and Latin roots I teach.

Grading 50/50: Websites to Try (Free & Paid)

This is NOT a sponsored post. All product opinions are my own.

What if a website can "meet you in the middle" by doing a bulk of the marking, so that you just have to decide what grade to put on it (such as a rubric)? Here are the top 5 websites that have been game-changers for me in the past two years. 

1. Edpuzzle: I admittedly use the most basic functions of this site instead of all the bells and whistles. I upload my instructional videos here so that I can track which students have (not) watched it. However, if you take the time to embed questions into the videos, it becomes a self-grading assessment to confirm if students "got it"!

2. FlipGrid: This one isn't entirely self-grading, BUT I love that FlipGrid now allows text OR video replies to student video submissions - meaning that classmates or I can leave feedback asynchronously and with less pressure to have a camera on ourselves. 

3. Vocabulary.com: Though the paid version has its advantages, there are MANY ways that a teacher and students can use a majority of the website for free. I almost exclusively have students play The Challenge, and then I use a rubric (FREE) to assess their progress quarterly. (I set a minimum number of words they need to master in a quarter, and this minimum is sometimes raised or customized. A majority of my students LIKE vocabulary.com enough, and enjoy the leaderboard/competition, that they blast this minimum goal out of the water.) 

4. IXL - Though pricey (and paid for by the school), I opted for this website instead of alternatives (like NoRedInk) in part because it covers more than just grammar (like vocabulary, MLA citations, writing strategies and reading), but I also like the types of data I get when students practice (almost overwhelming). It's not free, but my school felt that it was worth the investment for the topics and the instant feedback to students. We vary how IXL is used - required vs. suggested, homework vs. in-class, minutes spent vs. SmartPoints earned, etc. - but there's nothing like it in terms of no-prep and no-grading practice. 

5. Quizlet (paid Teacher Version): I love being able to see which students have (not) studied with my provided Quizlet sets and which study methods or games the students used to prepare. 

6. CommonLit: We opted for this (instead of Newsela) in part because it also included poems, speeches, short stories, and more commonly-taught texts in addition to articles on more contemporary topics. I also liked that they group texts by theme, by Social Studies/History units, by genre, and even by texts that pair well with novels. 

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