Zombie Test Prep–Continued

I wish I could definitively say that I know my students performed better on STAAR because of the activities we did with this zombie project, but that would be a bit like being overconfident in surviving when 200 of the “Undead” are trying to eat my arm off. The English I Reading and Writing tests are hard–at least for my non-readers.

In response to several requests I received via Twitter. Here’s an outline of the project:

First, I did some backwards planning. What are the primary skills students need to master in order to achieve satisfactory scores on STAAR?

  • Write a literary essay with engaging characters, plot, theme, etc

  • Write an expository essay with a strong thesis, good organization, solid supporting details, etc.

  • Respond to reading–literary, expository, poetry, etc.–in paragraph form with embedded textual evidence

  • Read critically and answer questions about content, text structures, author’s purpose, etc.

No Sweat! Well, actually, a lot of sweat, tears, blood. . . Well, not blood. Not really. But I worry about my students A LOT. They come from homes in poverty with hard-working parents. By and large, they are sweet, good-hearted teens. But– they do not read, and this one thing impacts their learning in pretty much every aspect of my English class.

Thus, Z O M B I E S. I can hopefully get them interesting in the reading, which will hopefully get them interested in the learning.

I set the project up like PBL, but since I have limited training in how to actually carry out a PBL project, and my students have no experience with the requirements of this student-centered approach, which requires strong student leadership, the PBL part of the project was the first victim of our zombie attack. PBL lingered but it didn’t take an active part of the learning process. My students were too needy, and I felt rushed for time.

Introduction:  Entry Document/s

Part I. Silent Discussion. In my last post I shared the Intro to Zombie Project I used first  to spark student thinking about the project.  After students watched the video, they completed a Poster Activity (strategy idea from Bob Probst) where I gave them each a colored marker, and on each table I put a poster-size paper. I told students that they must use their marker to think on the paper. What things did you see in the video that you think you will be required to do in this project? Students wrote their thoughts in a silent discussion for about 15 minutes, and I circled the room, reading their comments and writing comments and questions to promote more thinking on their posters.

Part II. Memorandum. Next, I gave each student a copy of Zombie Apocalypse entry doc. They had to read it, and then I gave them time to talk with their table mates about their thinking. I gave each group a sheet of paper. On the paper, I had them make a T-chart. On the left they wrote what they KNOW about the project, based on their reading of the memo and the video; on the right they wrote what they NEED to KNOW. Finally, we had whole class discussion, and students helped me complete a class KNOW/ NEED to KNOW chart that stayed posted on the wall throughout the project.

[This intro worked better than I could have imaged. We did it on a day I happened to have a group observe my classroom: Student engagement high. Evidence of student thinking high. Collaboration high. Literacy in action high. Higher-level questioning high.]

Reading and Writing 

Part III. Self-Selected Reading, Throughout the year I’ve required students to read books of their choosing. If you’ve read other posts, or seen Reel Reading on Fridays, you know I talk YA books incessantly. In an attempt to get students to read something that might tie into the texts and topics we were talking about in class, I wanted to bring in as many books about zombies as possible.

I turned to my Twitter PLN first, and with their help, I build this Zombie shelf at Goodreads.com. I hit the bookstore and spent way too much money on books for my classroom library. Then asked the awesome librarians at my school to pull all the books they had that dealt with zombies. They gave me about 45 titles that I book talked with my kids. The first book to go? World War Z. I had two copies and had to start a waiting list for checkout. Personally, I read the first two books in the Rot and Ruin  series by Jonathan Maberry. Good, gory books. Too thick and intimidating for my kids though.

I didn’t care if students read a book about zombies. I just really wanted them reading something. If I do this project again though, I think I would like them all to be reading a book that ties in thematically. I have to think about this more.

Part IV. Expository Reading to Become Better Expository Writers. Expository is a big umbrella, but the state of Texas defines it as INFORMATIONAL. Our students must write an explanation of a topic, using a clear and organized structure and evidence to clarify their points and support their explanation. Essays only have to be 26 lines handwritten, or about 300 words typed. It sounds easier than it is–especially for non-readers.

Students also have to be able to answer short answer reading questions. I kind of hate that we call these short answers–they are really essay questions that require essay responses. You know, with embedded text evidence: Quote something, analyze it, make your response a complete paragraph? Again, it sounds easy, but for my students it is the most difficult thing. Ever.

I know that before I can get students to focus on the writing skill. I have to get them interested in the reading passage. I struck zombie gold when I typed “zombie” and “Valentine’s” into Google. Here’s a sampling of the articles and the questions my students answered to practice writing short answer responses.

Zombie Valentine expository articleSAQ with Zombie Valentine article

SAQ Test- What Rhymes with Undead

We also read the introduction to SAQ Zombies vs Unicorns and practiced short answers. (These folks are serious and even have a Facebook page.)

News Articles. Most of my students have no idea what is going on outside of their own communities. I try to bring news of the world to them as often, and in any way, I can. To prepare them for their expository essay on STAAR, I wanted to expose them to as many types of expository writing, and as many topics in the news that I could. So, under the guise of “You are the survivors of this zombie apocalypse  What would people 100 years from now what to know about your civilization?” I had students look up news articles, practice writing summaries, and explain.

Part V. Literary Writing. Another part of the Texas STAAR test for English I is a literary essay. Students are given a prompt, and they must write a little story that shows evidence of their understanding and ability to develop characters, conflict, plot, setting, and theme. Here’s the Literary Story- Zombie Project we used for our project. If you’d like student essay samples, let me know.

Part VI. Poetry. Finally, although students do not have to write poems for their STAAR test, they might have to read and analyze it. We had already read many poems in class, so for this project, I really wanted students to just play with word choice. Most did a zombie-like job on their poems. Plagiarism 5 times. Way below grade level work at least a 100 others. Here’s a sampling of Zombie poems. I especially like a few of the blackout poems:

the helpless

are able



a little daring

Rubric and Reflection

If I ever do this project again, I will allow for more creative time in class. Most of my students rarely do homework, so if I don’t capture the time I have them, I rarely see work once students leave the room. Most groups did not pay attention to the Zombie Project Rubric. They focused on one area much more than they focused on others. For example, I had one group that did a sensational job on the items in their survival backpack, but they did not take the time to write engaging stories or read and evaluate news articles. Therefore, their overall grade was low. A lot of this was my fault for not allowing equal time in class for each part of the project.

As our final event, the day after our second STAAR test, we watched the first episode of “The Walking Dead.” I wished that the movie “Warm Bodies” was on DVD because that would have been a great lead into our next unit:  Romeo and Juliet. It’s loosely based on Shakespeare’s play, you know? Check out this video for a fun re-mix:

Do you have any ideas for Zombie test prep? I’d love to add your resources to my growing file. Who knew zombies could be so . . . well, alive?

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