Best Practices and Tests CAN Go Together

This week’s guest blog post is written by Lynnelle Snowbarger who is in her tenth year of teaching fifth grade in the Jenks Public Schools.  A frequent participant in the Slice of Life Story Challenge, Lynelle also documents her journey with her students at the Bohemian Teacher Blog.

Teachers don’t join the profession because of testing. We join the profession because of our passion. My desire for  my students is to see themselves as writers; understand the process of writing the stories in our lives so they can see how documenting themselves will allow others to see a piece of them.  But there has always been one issue: the state mandated writing test drove our instruction instead of our students.

When I started teaching 5th grade my mentor had it all figured out.  You teach writing workshop first semester.  How to have a beginning, middle, and end, ensuring there is punctuation, and using description. We dabbled with Donald Graves, Lucy Calkins, and Ralph Fletcher.  Then Holiday Break happens. The kids leave and come back in January and a new teacher greets them at the door. You know the one that sucks the creative writing process out of the students because s/he has to teach students how to answer a prompt by Feb. 26th.  Over the years I dreaded that teacher. I despised having to teach the prescriptive writing of the five paragraph essay. We even put  the formula of a perfect essay to music.  But, not all students passed. The kids HATED it and  frankly I did too.

Things changed for me one November when my school district sent me to Dallas to hear Lucy Calkins speak.  She said if we teach our students to be good writers all year long they would be able to pass a writing test.  What I needed to do was teach my students to write essays in the same way I taught them personal narrative writing. I was so excited!  I looked at my principal and asked if we could throw away the safety net and jump into the water of essay writing within the framework set up in our writing workshop? He said “yes.”

So what did I do when I go home? I jumped in and luckily I wasn’t alone. My entire grade level came with me. We met weekly discussing the lessons being taught from Breathing Life Into Essays from Calkins’ Units of Study. During our weekly collaboration sessions, we brought student writing to the table to discuss and brainstorm ways to help students who were struggling. We also read the book a Writing a Life by Katherine Bomer; two weeks before the actual test we introduced how to use the framework of our essay unit to answer a prompt. We provided students with written prompt essays to “grade.”  We also taught them what to do when you get stuck (see Chapter nine of Bomer’s book).  Enthusiasm for writing did not wane during this time as it did in years past. My kids didn’t groan at the thought of writing time because we were studying the life of being an essayist rather than instructing them on how to pass a test.  We wrapped it all up with a big party the day after the test.  Then, we dove into our next genre study and the year went on.

A few months later I received a phone call from my principal with the news. This news was so exciting I couldn’t even believe it. 100% of our students passed. No child received an unsatisfactory rating.  So I delved into our data and greeted our team in the fall with our plan of action for the next year because we all know one year of data does not create a trend (but I believed we had hit the jackpot). We kept the same model this past school year;  I am proud to say achieved  success.  99% of our students passed.  Our model of collaboration and striving to keep the workshop atmosphere instead of a prescriptive writing has created a model of success.

Testing is a part of an educator’s life. Sadly it is something that defines some of our salary and evaluations.  However, you don’t have to succumb to the pressure by throwing best practices out the window. Best practices and test preparation can go hand in hand.