Workshop as Test Prep?

Today my students finished the NJASK standardized test for 6th grade.  Well, they didn’t really finish- math is tomorrow and Thursday.  But the language arts section is done now!  This afternoon I took an informal, conversational survey of my students.  They were all really happy because they felt that the test was “So easy! Much easier than last year!”.  I didn’t notice anything different from years past, so I asked them what we had done this year that they thought best prepared them for the test.  Needless to say, I was thrilled with their answers.

  • Our weekly Article of the Week.  They said that reading the articles helped them feel more confident about informational text, and the written response each week gave them more confidence.
  • The Forty Book Challenge.  Requiring them to read 40 books increased their speed and fluency.  A lot of them said it was the first year that they didn’t struggle to finish the reading selections.
  • Using boxes and bullets for the persuasive essay (a la Calkins)
  • Our read alouds.  They had a wide range of texts to draw on, and they remembered a lot of conversations while answering the multiple choice questions.  One student told me that he just imagined the questions being read in my voice, like they were a part of our read aloud conversation.
  • Letter-essays.  Again, they felt confident about writing a lot in a set amount of time.  And they told me they had a lot of strategies to draw on when they got stuck.
  • Our one week of test prep before the test.  They really liked that we focused on test writing as a genre, because they felt that they really understood the ins and outs of the test better.  Also, they loved the “hamburger method” (from Better Answers) for answering open-ended reading response questions.

But my favorite answer?  “The old ladies!”  See, I tell my classes that the written responses to the NJASK are hand-graded by old, retired teachers who are locked in a conference room for an entire weekend and do nothing but grade tests.  They get cranky, their coffee gets stale, and they don’t want to read messy or bad writing.  They don’t want to have to struggle to understand what the writer means.  I say this jokingly, asking my students how many of them have to explain technology to their grandparents in great detail when all they want is to tell a story about a Youtube video.  This always bring laughs but a lot of nods.  Turns out, you need to explain the same amount in your writing!  I remind them that the cranky old teachers only have the answer sheets in front of them, so you need to explain in DETAIL.  Not just glossing over facts or opinions!

Imagine my surprise when one student raised her hand today and told me that made all the difference in the world for her.  Suddenly, she had an audience in mind when writing.  She didn’t make assumptions that her reader was going to be a teacher who knew her well and could make assumptions about what she meant.  As she told me this, I watched the rest of my class nod in agreement.  Who knew?!  Just picturing an old, cranky teacher was enough to remind them to elevate their writing.  We talk about audience all the time, but this time it clicked.

Needless to say, I am thrilled that everything I do as a part of workshop translated to the test for my students.  I don’t do months of test prep, I don’t focus on the test as the be-all end-all of the year, but they all took it seriously.  What I saw as I was walking around thrilled me!  Of course, I won’t see results until the end of the summer, but I feel confident that they all did their best work.  :)

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