Thursday, January 15, 2015

Strategy and Advocacy Matter: Taking Tests

Hard to believe I mixed up these two people. 
Students are taking a couple of tests today and I started the test-taking session with a discussion about strategy.

I noted that doing your best means choosing the best strategies for your success and advocating respectfully for yourself.

I then told them a story about when I was really dumb in high school, and yes, I wanted to use the word dumb. As a senior in high school I was really interested in learning more about Martin Luther King, Jr. so I asked my high school religion teacher (I went to Catholic school) if I could have an independent study instead of taking religion class. I said that I'd use the time to study about Martin Luther King, Jr. and write a paper. He said okay.

On the first day I went to my teeny tiny high school library and began looking for books about Martin Luther King, Jr. Note that this was 1977. I found three books about Martin Luther. I started reading the books and thought, I don't think this is Martin Luther King, Jr., but maybe I'm mistaken. I kept reading and taking notes. I didn't understand much of what I read because I had no background information related to Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr.

For four to five months I went to the library every day and continued to read about Martin Luther. I wrote a paper about him with the best of my ability. The teacher never checked in on me and I don't even remember if he ever corrected the paper. During college the error finally dawned on me.

So it's clear why I was dumb. First, I didn't advocate for myself by asking the teacher for help when I first thought there was a problem. Next I didn't visit the public library or ask family members or reach out to anyone else to figure out what was going on. This was well before the great Internet access of today and it was also a time when I was at school from 7:30am to 3:30pm and worked most afternoons until 6pm or later. But, I did have weekends and there were busses available to take me to the city library.

So, that's one example why it's important to advocate for yourself.

Once I told the story of advocacy, the lesson continued as I shared a number of positive test strategies including the following:
  • Use a sharpened pencil, dull pencils tire you out more quickly.
  • Use graph paper if you need it. Graph paper can help you stay organized particularly if you have messy handwriting.
  • Sit in a place that helps you do your best job. Make sure the lighting is right and there aren't too many distractions near you.
  • Wear comfy clothes--we all do our best with clothes that make us feel good and free to learn.
  • Do all calculations on paper so you can check them over. 
  • Check your calculations with the inverse operation for example check addition with subtraction, multiplication with division and so on. 
  • Write numbers carefully. Students often get calculations wrong because they write numbers that look like other numbers. Common errors are 6's that look like 0's and 4's that look like 7's.
  • When done, take a minute to rest, then look over your work. 
In the end, I emphasized that a test is a chance to show off your best work and knowledge. I also repeated that using good strategy and advocating for yourself by asking questions when you don't understand are very important test strategies, and strategy matters when it comes to test success.

I received a strong academic foundation overall from my high school. In fact, the first year of college was a piece of cake. The same teacher who never checked in on me during the Martin Luther independent study also gave me a solid foundation when it came to the study of "Peace, Love, and Justice" which was the title of another course he taught. Further, rather than breaking up the subjects into social studies and English, we had Humanities which helped us to synthesize many important ideas from specific time periods--that provided a great foundation for later study. No teachers or schools are perfect, and in the end this not-so-good learning event ended up as a valuable life lesson that I pass on to students each year.