Advice on Tests

Gary Rubinstein gives some advice on tests, specifically the first one:

  • Collect homework so you know what students understand
  • Don’t make it too long. Err on the side of making the test too short so as to allow students to check their work.
  • Make the test easy enough so that every student can do well. While I’m all for high expectations, I think he has a point here. Students who are used to failing will have their hopes dashed once again if they don’t do well on the first assessment or test. On the other hand, if they do well, their entire outlook on school (or at least your class) can change. I’ve seen it happen.

I’m not a fan of using the words “easy” and “hard” to refer to tests. If students have been engaged and learning, the test should be what my old English professor called an opportunity to show off your knowledge. A “hard” test to me is one that asks questions you weren’t expecting and tests your knowledge of trivial details. I think that teachers should have the expectation that all students can do well on every test (and by well I mean pass at the least) if they work hard and understand the objectives of each lesson.

Basically, tests are just assessing what the students SHOULD know, led by standards and objectives, as opposed to testing information that students don’t need to know to excel in the subject. Putting the latter on tests is what I call “hard.” For example, testing students on specific dates and places is way less important than testing them on their knowledge of the importance of the Federalist Papers or their ability to use standard writing conventions. Not scary. Just practical. And the test shouldn’t be “hard” if students have worked diligently to understand and master the parts that were difficult at the beginning. If students are aware of all this, I think that test-taking will be much less scary. If students have slacked off and know they don’t understand what’s on the homework, then yes, the test will be hard, but it doesn’t have to be.

So many quotation marks. Apologies.

The First Day

I’ve been planning out my first day of teaching in my mind for a few years now. I suppose I got it into my head through various media that the first day is meant to grab students so that they want to learn and that the first impression is everything. The first day is THE day to get the class under control so kids aren’t crazy and disrespectful as in “To Sir, With Love.” Again, thanks, media. All that I really worked out for that first day is to ask students “Why are you here?” They’ll answer: parents make them, it’s the law, to get a job eventually…etc. Then I’d make some lesson about showing them why school (with an emphasis on my subjects, whatever they may be) is important. Why? To teach about REAL LIFE and to learn skills that apply, get this, to REAL LIFE.

Luckily, Mr. Rubinstein slapped a bit of sense into me about the first day.

He argues that veteran teachers are never enthusiastic or set out to “wow” students on the first day, so if you are a new teacher trying to impress the students, they’ll know you aren’t a seasoned teacher. That is bad, he argues, because students want to learn and put more faith (rightly so, I believe) in teachers with experience.

Students also want the first day to be predictable. Meet the teachers, get the books, meet classmates. And really, how much can be taught on the first day when class periods are probably shorter than usual? All sorts of crazy happens on the first day that teachers can do nothing about, so it seems that playing it cool and taking it easy on the first day is better than trying to impress and win over the students.

Here’s what Gary does on the first day: get students into assigned seats, give them an index card to fill out with contact information (and other questions like if they have a computer – more info about surveys in the books Fires in the Bathroom), and give them an assessment.

Things to not do:

  • An icebreaker
    The metaphorical ice helps the kids respect you more, and I need all the respect I can get because I am 5 feet all and look like I’m 12. No joke.
  • Behavior contract
    “If they’re going to ignore your rules, they’re going to ignore your behavior contract.” I’m still working out the ways to talk about rules, though. Or, rather, expectations.
  • Reveal that you’re a new teacher
    Kids will assume that you’re not going to be able to control them, the class will be chaos for the year, and they won’t learn anything. Would it be lying to say you’re not a “new” teacher if you’ve student-taught and taught, say, practicum lessons? And it’s not your “first” year if you’ve been preparing to teach (and indeed doing some teaching) for years and years, right? Gary suggests that if you don’t lie, admit you’re a new teacher but say it with a tone that says “and what’s it to you?”
  • Let students make the rules (if it’s your first year)
    It takes away the teacher’s authority. Apparently. I mean, I see where he’s coming from in that it’s best to play it safe, especially during the first few days of your first year when you’d be making the rules. Plus, first year teachers don’t really have enough experience to know what rules are “good” or “bad” so they need the authority to make and change the rules as they see fit. Then next year or so, they will be more prepared to guide students in making rules that are realistic.

So what will I do on the first day? Probably whatever my cooperating teacher does when I student-teach. Then I’ll probably follow Mr. Rubinstein’s advice to give students a survey and assessment. On day two, it’s business time.


Classroom management and seating go hand in hand. Here are some thoughts about seating.

Gary Rubinstein writes that collaborative learning (i.e. seating students in groups and doing projects in those groups) isn’t necessary all the time and should, in fact, be used in moderation. There’s a time and place for independent work and group work. The good news is that desks and chairs can move.

I taught in a classroom that had the desks in a U-shape. Students got up and moved around frequently. Desks were used to store heavy books and other belongings, but it wasn’t as if their desks were their personal property to which they were attached.

Gary writes that in his class, students often sit in rows (he teaches math, by the way) but know that they can ask their neighbors of help. So there’s the collaborative teaching and learning environment right there without students sitting in groups and being more prone to being off-task. I’ve worked with a teacher or two who  made the rule that before asking the teacher for help, students had to ask 2 or 3 other students for help first.

There’s really no reason for students to sit in groups unless it’s best for them to work and be assessed together. At the end, you’ll still need an individual assessment.

So right now, it seems that sitting in a circle or U-shape seems the best for most lessons.

Running Out of Time

Basically,  I’m going to Gary Rubinstein’s blog and reblogging the parts I feel are most important and that I don’t want to forget. The problem is that I’m so inexperienced that I’ll believe just about any piece of advice I hear, but I’m pretty sure Gary knows what he’s doing.

Lessons almost always take longer than you think. If the lesson goes too fast, tack on another activity and always have some in reserve. But slowing down is harder.

Here’s what he says:

Until I really know where my students are and what will frustrate them and make them lose confidence, I prefer to teach something short and easy. This doesn’t mean my expectations are low. It means that I’m choosing a less risky path. A good rule of thumb is that if you think a topic can be covered in one day, it will probably take two days. So you have a choice: Split it up into two nicely organized lessons, each with a good assessment activity or you can try to teach it in one day, fail miserably, and then try to ‘re-teach’ it the second day. There’s no way around it. If the lesson requires two days, it will get those two days one way or another.

Since it is so common for even veteran teachers to miscalculate how much content is the perfect amount, a good thing to do, while planning your lesson, is to have an ‘exit strategy.’ What you do is make an alternative activity that the students will be able to do even if you only get through half of the material you expected to. That way when you’re twenty minutes into the lesson and realizing that you’d better get the kids to work in the next two minutes, you can assign your ‘exit strategy’ lesson and the students will never know that they didn’t rise to meet your expectations. All they’ll know is that they learned something today and successfully completed an activity.

Consequences and Punishment

Gary Rubinstein wrote another gem about not posting your consequences for misbehavior. Here’s why it’s bad:

  • students know what’s coming, which isn’t very scary
  • no room for the teacher to address worse problems and skip steps
  • students more likely to manipulate the system
  • it shows you’re assuming there will be problems rather than assuming that there will be none (although we all know problems will arise but we’ll pretend like we’re not expecting it)
  • also – don’t say you’ll use or actually use a verbal warning because it’s a free pass

Gary also has a video of a Teach for America training in which he teaches to not use the old system of giving students a verbal warning, then writing their name on the board for the second offense, putting a check by the name for the third offense, adding another check, etc. How can the teacher keep track of who’s got a warning? And having a kid’s name on the board really isn’t a punishment.

Instead, he suggests perfecting the “teacher look” and using surprise parent calls. He also mentions winning the students over by gaining their respect and by preventing problems to begin with.

Big Goals

I skimmed a pretty good chunk of the Teach for America publication Teaching as Leadership as a senior in college for some anthropology essay. It seemed like a pretty good resource to me, but something didn’t sit well. I didn’t stop to think about it due to my need to whip out my essay and general lack of time to stop and think for a second.

Now that I do have a second, let’s think about it. Gary Rubinstein has an amazing blog which helps remind me of the sane people out there in the education world. He posted a series of blogs reviewing Teaching as Leadership and put coherent words and thoughts to what I was vaguely feeling.

The first chapter is about setting big goals, such as getting through 1.5 or 2 or 3 years’ worth of content in one year or 80% mastery of a subject, for instance. Reading this chapter made me feel like I could easily set these big goals, accomplish them, and change the world. Bam. Easy peasy. I suppose this is one of problems with TFA – making it seem like accomplishing Herculean goals are not only possible but fairly simple.

Back to the point. After reading Gary’s post, I became worried. The book itself states, “Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school” (36). The last thing I want to do is discourage students from learning by introducing them to failure due to my lack of teaching skills.

Great. So what to do? As Gary writes, it’s best to set small, measurable, reachable, frequent goals. Here’s where I think GLEs or CCSS can come into play. Re-write the GLEs as something students can understand in the form of “I am able to_____.” When students reach that goal, have a small celebration. Then it’s time to move on to the next one. Every 5 or 10 milestones means a big milestone is reached which warrants a big celebration that showcases their success, but always with an eye towards a larger goal – reading at  or above grade level, reading a certain number of books, getting 80% on some assessment…

I think that especially as a new teacher (let’s be real – I have no idea what’s going on. As Gary writes, “A new teacher doesn’t have enough experience to know the difference between a realistic big goal and an impossible one.”) it’s much better to play it safe with small, frequent goals that both students and the teacher agree are important that are part of a larger goal. Gary writes, “I think better advice would be to spend time really learning where your students are. Then set a small goal of achievement for your students. When they accomplish that goal, set another, slightly bigger goal. Keep doing that until the end of the year and you did a great job.” But if goals aren’t big, will students be inspired to achieve them? What’s the line between inspirational and not realistic?

2012 Teacher of the Year (who teaches middle school) Rebecca Mieliwocki says, “Share data and have students help set learning targets. I’ll tell a student, ‘You’re nearing grade level, but not quite there. How do you feel about that?’ And they’ll say, ‘I can do it,’ or ‘Can I go further?’ or ‘That looks hard for me.’ Set a plan together.” The goals don’t have to be huge but they need to revolve around standards. Tell students where they are and then help them reach the next goal. If they’re at a 4th rather than 6th grade level, help them get to 5th grade level first. But then how do you tell students they’re way below grade level without discouraging them?

Here’s the catch, though. Shouldn’t the first few weeks if not days be spent exciting your students to learn? How can you get them excited and encouraged to set their own goals if you don’t know where they’re at? Maybe a better question is how do you get your students excited and invested at the beginning of the school year?