Tag Archives: test prep

An Intervention Change Up and a Plug for Summer Learning


Photo by Brady Cook on Unsplash

I bet I am more ready for summer than you. No, really. I am SO ready.

It’s not that I don’t like my job. It’s not that I am not having tons of great learning experiences with my students — they are doing beautiful things. It’s not that all things testing come crushing in this time of year (TELPAS, STAAR, AP) and make me daydream of working at a spa folding towels. It’s really none of that. It’s not even that I need a vacation — although I do. Did we already have Spring Break? (Oh, yeah, we did.)

It’s this:  Last summer I had one of the most amazing, awe-inspiring experiences of my teaching life. And I get a do over this summer.

Last summer I got to work with a powerhouse group of ELAR teachers in Clear Creek ISD with my friend and collaborator, Billy Eastman. I met Coach Moore who now writes on this blog and many other true blue educators dedicated to doing the work of workshop instruction and determined to do right by their readers and writers.

I could go on and on and on. But I won’t because Billy and I already did.

We wrote about our planning and implementation of that summer learning in this article “An Intervention Change Up: Investing in Teacher Expertise to Transform Student Learning,” recently published in English Journal.

I hope you’ll read it. Think about the intervention routines on your campus. Are they good for all students? Will they increase confidence in the hearts and minds of your readers and writers? Will they help students gain skills — or reinforce their lack of them?

And what about teachers? What’s in that work for you?

I’d love to know your thoughts. And if we can help, please let us know that, too.

Amy Rasmussen teaches English IV and AP English Language and Composition at a large senior high school in North TX. She is grateful to the North Star of TX Writing Project and Penny Kittle for showing her the benefits of choice and challenge; otherwise, she would probably still be dragging students through Dickens’ novels and pulling her hair our over plagiarized essays. Thank God she learned a better way. Follow Amy @amyrass and @3TeachersTalk. And please join the Three Teachers Talk Facebook page if you haven’t already. Join the conversation and share the good news of your workshop classroom.

A Call for Real Opportunities to Learn — Not More Test Prep

Natl Literacy Trust Survey 2016

Of course, this data caught my eye.

My friend Gary Anderson posted it on Facebook with this link to the National Literacy Trust Findings from their Annual Literacy Survey 2016: Celebrating Reading for Enjoyment.

I had just spent the day working with teachers in Clear Creek ISD as they launched their two week STAAR Academy, a series of summer school-like classes designed to immerse students in authentic reading and writing — not the typical mode of tutorials often offered in the hope of helping students pass their state mandated English exams.

Billy Eastman, Clear Creek ISD High School ELA and World Languages Coordinator, is a visionary who believes in his teachers and in the students they serve. He knows that when students choose books they want to read, experience learning in an environment that validates their personal lives and learning journeys, and are given space and instruction that allows them to write about the topics that matter to them, students grow. They grow in confidence, and they grow in ability.

Thirty-five teachers met with me in a two hour institute this morning. We read and talked and wrote and talked. We built a community of teacher-readers and writers. We engaged in learning — all with a central goal:  How can we create a space for all students to advance as readers and writers?

Then, teachers planned. In teams they designed lessons intent on engaging students as real readers and writers — not just students reading and writing for a test.

After lunch, teachers facilitated similar community building activities with the roughly 250 students attending the academy.

With generous funding by his district, Mr. Eastman was able to provide books, lots of new high-interest YA literature, in which students could choose a book they want to read. This is the first step in “celebrating reading for enjoyment” and all the benefits that come with it.

As I visited the 12 classrooms this afternoon, I witnessed students writing and talking about their reading lives.

“I like stories okay,” one boy said, “but I don’t like to read.”

“I’m not really into reading,” said another.

“Reading isn’t my thing,” another boy said.

I asked one young man if he liked to read, and he told me: “Yes, I read a lot.” He had just selected Scythe, the new book by Neil Shusterman, and I could tell he was eager to get started reading it. He’d already read Unwind and quickly told me how much he enjoyed that series. The other three students in this boy’s small group were less enthusiastic about reading anything, but they were willing to try. One chose Still Life with Tornado by A.S. King, another Boy 21 by Matthew Quick, and the other Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez.

As I observed every classroom this afternoon, I noticed a few things:

  • The ratio of boys to girls in most every classroom was at least 4 to 1.
  • Boys want to read books that look “tough.” The cover has to captivate them.
  • Girls will choose books with male protagonists more often than boys will choose books with female protagonists.
  • Few students choose historical fiction — they seem drawn to realistic fiction and dystopian.
  • Many students chose books teachers might deem too difficult for them. (One of the most popular book choices offered today was All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015.)

For the next nine weekdays, students will read their chosen books and spend time engaged in their community of learners. They will practice the moves of real readers and writers as teachers practice the routines of readers-writers workshop and read and write beside their students. Besides the obvious benefit for students, teachers will engage in the kind of professional development that truly matters, the kind that gives hands-on experience with students as they practice the art and craft of teaching.

I am excited for the outcome. I am excited that teachers are excited. I am honored to be a part of Mr. Eastman’s vision for his district.

So what does this have to do with the National Literacy Trusts’ Annual Survey? A lot.

As I read through the report this evening, I found nothing startling or surprising. Of course, there are advantages to reading for enjoyment.

But then I shifted my thinking and began questioning the why and the what. Why does the data say what it does? Why are their gaps in enjoyment between boys and girls? Why are their gaps between age groups? What is happening in schools that might be causing these gaps? What is happening in students’ lives that might be causing these gaps? What can change if we approach reading and writing instruction differently? What should change?

I challenge you to read the report and ask yourself similar questions. Then, I challenge you to take the next step:  follow Billy Eastman’s lead. Whatever your sphere of influence, how can you allow a space for reading for enjoyment? And if you haven’t done so yet: How can you change the model of instruction in your classroom, in your school, or in your district so all students have the chance to become real readers and writers who enjoy what they read and write?

Don’t all students deserve similar opportunities to learn — not more test prep?

Amy Rasmussen lives in north Texas and teaches AP English Language and English 4 (new prep in the fall). She loves talking books, daughters’ weddings (two this year), and grandbabies. She also loves facilitating PD for other teachers making the move into a workshop pedagogy because it keeps her focused on her own improvement. Amy adheres to the words of Emerson: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark,” and Jesus: “Love one another.” Imagine a world if we all aim higher. Follow Amy on Twitter @amyrass. And she’d love it if you follow this blog!

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?

Zombies and Test Prep–Who Knew?

Let me tell you about my Zombie Project.

It all started when I heard my husband and sons talking about that one episode of “The Walking Dead.”

“Oh, man, I didn’t expect that ending.”

“Sheesh, he got it out of the blue, didn’t he?”

“Merle just died. Died. And he was the tough guy.”

I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, nor why they were so talkative. (I live with four men. It’s true: they usually use up their word allotment by lunch time.)

So, I slipped into my teacher hat and asked some book-chat type questions:  Tell me about this show that has you all riled up. Does this character remind you of anyone you know? Why do you think the show ended this way? Did the characters learn anything?

“Really, Mom?”

One thing led to another, and we were talking about how this zombie craze is a pretty good metaphor for our society.

Then, I talked to my friend Trista, and she told me she was doing this zombie project with her students.

Hmmm. I’m thinking.

Then, like a flailing limb, it hit me:  Standardized testing. Test prep. Zombies. Pretty good metaphor.

I teach English I to mostly non-readers. They are sweet kids with bright smiles and fun personalities, but they are below grade level when it comes to reading and writing. Many of them need a lot more help than I can give them. We have little time for one-on-one when my class size is 32.

Our state testing date is looming. I know I need my students engaged, and I need them thinking and reading critically, and I need them writing effectively. The Golden Question: HOW?

The creepy, undead, flesh eating answer:  ZOMBIES.

First, I made a list of the most pressing skills students needed to review, and then I became a zombie expert.

Did you know there are zombie poets and zombie poems?

Did you know there is an ongoing argument about which is more awesome zombies or unicorns? There’s even a Facebook page.

Did you know that a high school librarian, at a teacher’s request, can find 37 or so books that all have something to do with zombies?

Did you know that there are websites that “match” zombie-loving people to other zombie-loving people? and you can upload a picture and turn your image into a blood oozing zombie?

Really, now. Who knew?

So, I created this Zombie Project that included some pretty intense test prep and a whole lot of fun.

The video below is how I introduced it to my students. They watched it, and then on large poster paper at each table of four students, they did some silent thinking. I gave them each a different colored marker, and they had to write, based on the clues in the video, what they thought they’d have to do in the project.

You try it. Watch the video and see if you can come up with all the parts of the project. I’ll post more –handouts, articles, book lists, etc., as soon as I have a chance.

Mrs. Rasmussen’s Zombie Project

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