Recently, I asked my freshmen to respond to several prompts intended to assess their understanding of various literary concepts at the end of a unit. There was nothing more to study—nothing left to prepare for in advance. Simply, show what you know. Although I was doing committee work across the hall, expectations for the sub and students were clear: complete your responses by the end of the class period and place your papers in the basket. Students were welcome to interrupt my meeting and ask a question. Splendid.
When I had a break, I checked the basket to see what my students produced. The basket was full…of incomplete work.
In response, I experienced all stages of the teacher frustration cycle.
Shock: What the…?
Worry: What happened to my wonderful students? Where did I go wrong? Haven’t I taught anything during the last month? Have I failed to prepare my learners?
Examination: How did some meet the requirements but many not even come close?
Anger: How dare they not complete several simple responses?
Resentment: Seriously? Only a couple kids stopped in during intervention time or after school to complete the test. Do they expect to be gifted more class time tomorrow after seeing all the questions? What an entitled generation.
[Spite: Time to teach them a lesson! Make it hurt!]*
*At this point, I remembered one vital detail. We have established a healthy learning environment built on trust. Spite teaching will destroy weeks of progress. Learning is not limited by increments of time; nor is it measured by compliant behaviors. I decided to look closer at the underlying issue and replace the 6th stage—spite—with three different stages to produce more positive outcomes.
Introspection: Time to reflect. What’s really going on here? How can I turn a potentially negative consequence into a positive learning experience? My assessment prompts are strong and still valid. Even if students go home and prepare responses, what’s the worst that can happen? Everyone produces a quality argument and I have more to read? Everyone learns?
Next steps: Now what? Brainstorm all possible solutions, regardless of how outrageous they may seem. How can I create an unforgettable experience?
Growth: How can we turn our failures into an opportunity to learn? Got it!
The next morning, students sheepishly entered the classroom. Word had (somehow) spread that I was not pleased. There was a blank sheet of paper at everyone’s seat. They looked around and asked, “What are we doing today? Will we have time to finish the test? Am I really going to fail?”
My only response: Better start stretching. Today is not going to be a typical class period…
The memorable lesson was revealed. Students had one minute to read through the lyrics of Jimmy Eat World’s song, “The Middle.”
After reading from the screen, students had to find a trusty partner. I added the following directions in a comment box on the screen:
Although you are writing separate arguments, you are in this together. Then, select from these PHYSICAL CHALLENGE OPTIONS: WALL SITS, PLANKS, STAND ON ONE LEG, TEXTBOOK SQUATS/CRUNCHES/PRESSES
While Partner 1 writes, Partner 2 completes a PHYSICAL CHALLENGE! When Partner 1 is done writing, partners switch roles until Partner 2 completes his/her written response to the prompt. Ready?
Prompt 1: What is the theme of Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle”? Assert a 1 sentence claim worth arguing.
With Partner 1 writing, Partner 2 began the workout. Writers who were able to think quickly and craft a sentence relieved their partner of over exertion. But other writers felt the pressure to produce one sentence against a mental clock. Consequently, their partners suffered to hold the physical challenge. Some responded with supportive words; others were not as patient.
Prompt 2: Integrate evidence to support your claim (1 sentence)
Round two had to be easier with time to mentally prepare during the physical challenge, right? Again, results varied, but there was energy in the room.
Just support your claim. Hurry up! Quote a lyric! And switch.
Prompt 3: How is the message relevant to those trying to survive the tests of Lit Island (our 1st unit)? (Do not start your warrant with “THIS”) 1-2 sentences MAX!
Complete the argument! How much longer? Let’s goooooo!
When both partners were done writing, I invited them to relax and reflect.
Prompt 4: What are some valuable academic takeaways from today’s physical challenge writing lesson?
I received a collection of insightful responses.
Can we do this more often?
I have to organize my thoughts and put them in writing.
I feel energized.
I need more practice with timed writing.
Always pick a good partner.
I’m going to get stronger in this class.
It’s important to think ahead.
It’s OK to take a risk.
Stop worrying so much!
I’m a better writer when I have more time.
I can write on demand when I have to.
This was a fun activity.
If my partner trusts me, I have to trust myself.
Some added wisdom from Jimmy Eat World:
I just have to try my best.
If I am myself, it doesn’t matter what other people think.
I have to be patient with myself. It just takes some time.
Everything will be fine.
When the physical challenge exercise was complete, writers had the remainder of class to complete their test responses. Everyone did with efficiency and ease. Those who had already completed their test were invited to make revisions to their responses or simply read until class was over. Time spent was worthwhile. The results were significant.
I empathize with the learners who hesitate with uncertainty or second guess. I do not enjoy watching students agonize over exposing their imperfections in the daunting presence of a time clock. Admittedly, I am a slow test taker. I prefer to think before I act. I need time to process, rationalize, and commit to a response.
So why do I continue to expose my learners to such torment?
Timed tests are a reality of the educational experience. Our freshmen face three years of preparation for the ACT or SAT—a test that supposedly predicts their chance of future success. Over the next four years, many students will also sit through Advanced Placement exams.
If I can provide any advantage or alleviate some testing anxiety, I will. Like a coach, I need to prepare my team for competition. I have to provide opportunities to practice with purpose and support individual development. As a language arts coach, I can help writers prepare to think quickly, organize their thoughts, and craft coherent responses to timed tasks they will be expected to complete in future endeavors.
While many writers struggle to complete formative tasks against the limitations of the clock, even the most confident students grow anxious when a grade is attached to the outcome. In extreme cases, I’ve seen perfectionists opt to submit a blank page rather than face the judgment of an unplanned product. How do we speak louder than the voices of insecurity and doubt?
School is an academic fitness center for mental training.
We exercise minds in the classroom. We nourish brains with knowledge and provide opportunities that stretch thinking. We coach writers through classroom workouts that build endurance, strengthen skills, and increase flexibility in writing for various purposes.
The mind is a powerful muscle.