Beyond Test Prep

Photo by Amber Arnold — Wisconsin State Journal

It’s that time of year again. Testing. With this one word comes so much anxiety, frustration, and stress. And I’m speaking of our students. Neatoday recently reported on educators’ frustrations over test prep or, as referred to in the article, the “test and punish model.” As adults, we’re used to grappling with a host of challenges in our daily lives. But our young learners rely on us to create a space of creativity and joy, despite the demands placed upon us by administrators and educational policies.

The following is a list of ideas to help balance the inevitable and unavoidable test preparation expected of so many educators with joyful, meaningful learning experiences in the classroom.

Read Alouds

I have yet to encounter a student who did not enjoy a funny or adventurous read aloud. This can be a welcome escape from the realities of “test prep” and can motivate students through the work at hand in order to reap to the rewards of reading. Go to “Books We Love” on this blog for a few fan favorites that are gripping to students and leave them begging for “Just one more chapter!”

Artist’s Workshop

My students love seeing this written on the agenda. The first time one of my students saw these words she exclaimed, “ I don’t know what this is, but it sounds fun!” Children love opportunities to be creative. Yet, many students, particularly once they reach middle school, come to see themselves as “inartistic.” The key is to create experiences where all students feel successful. You can achieve this by placing emphasis on the process, rather than the product. Also, create open-ended prompts that will lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Finally, provide students with opportunities to engage in a number of art experiences and explore a variety of mediums, rather than boxing them into just one.

The following examples are a result of taking wonderful course called Art for Classroom Teachers at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition to opportunities to sketch and draw, students can explore the possibilities of:

  • Printmaking – Using a variety of tools such as Styrofoam, toothpicks, and ink create different types of prints on different types of paper.
  • Paint – Using a brush and one paint color notice the types of brush strokes that can be made.  Or, explore a technique such as brush strokes, shade and tone, size to show perspective, etc. to paint a place where you feel relaxed.
  • Collage – Using materials such as papers, buttons, pipe cleaners, and glue, to depict an image of something you like to do with your friends.
  • Clay – Try out techniques such as pinching and coiling.
  • Construction – Create a structure using a variety of shaped boxes, wire, tape, and other materials. Decorate using paint, collage, or other techniques.

These experiences will indeed require strong classroom management skills so that students know how to use materials properly and how to clean up efficiently. However, the benefits of such artistic explorations are immeasurable.

 Outside Exploration

A 20-minute exploration outside on the playground or a courtyard on the school grounds can be an energizing experience. Students can read independently, or they can be read to. Students can write or sketch in their writer’s notebooks while observing something in their surroundings that they see everyday, but perhaps have not studied. Or play a quick game with the class. For great games to play with kids, including recommended ages for each game and instructions visit Responsive Classrooms at So much of our students’ lives are spent indoors. Going outside during the school day, beyond recess time, even in the snow, is such a rare, unexpected gift.

Create an Experiment

Work with students to create a hands-on scientific experiment around a fun topic. My favorite: paper airplanes! Abbe, a remarkable teacher, shared this idea. This is one of the most inexpensive experiments to conduct with students and the best part is they get to fly paper airplanes… in school!

Working in groups, students construct 5 or 6 different types of paper airplanes and make predictions about which will fly farthest. Rather than writing a traditional lab report, Abbe came up with the idea of having each group create an illustrated diagram of each step of the scientific method. The question guiding the experiment is simple. “Which plane flies the farthest?”

We’d take our classes to the cafeteria after lunchtime hours, have them line up meter sticks across the floor, and watch our students conduct their experiments and record the result. Our students were having so much fun flying those planes, they didn’t realize the plethora of skills they were enacting and practicing during the process. But Abbe and I did!

Visit for templates and videos to guide you and your students toward making several different types of paper plans.

Dance Party

Jocelyn, a school counselor, and I share a love of music. We are known to break out in song and dance in a classroom, hallway, or even in the cafeteria. Last year, we scheduled weekly “dance parties” in my classroom. Select a song that gets students out of their seats. Set simple parameters to keep everyone safe and to make sure classrooms next to and below yours are not disturbed. Then, let the music move you! My latest craze is Happiness by Pharell Williams. Check out his video under This N That!

Dramatize a Short Story

My students love reader’s theatre. And even when some students are not interested in taking on a part with a lot of lines, they are happy to be involved somehow in the process. My motto is, “There are no big and small roles! Each role is as important as another!” Students who are reluctant to take on speaking roles can portray inanimate objects and demonstrate the “role” of symbolism in a story.

Recently, my class read Early Autumn by Langston Hughes, which features two characters, Bill and Mary. That didn’t stop my class from finding a role for each person. Autumn is symbolic in this story. Therefore, students became trees, the wind, and falling leaves. The story takes place in Washington Square Park in New York City. So students lined up classroom chairs to create park benches that students sat on to portray the dynamics of a city park complete with people sitting and chatting, reading, or just people watching. They even portrayed the city bus that eventually one of the speaking characters boards.

Of course, the first few times of acting out this story resulted in laughter and silliness among students. But moments like these are great opportunities for classes to bond and new friendships to emerge. Besides, in the midst of days that may be heavy due to “test prep” and eventually, testing, laughter really is the best medicine. After a few rehearsals, my students brilliantly brought Hughes’ story to life and demonstrated before my eyes their ability to analyze and interpret literature. Bravo!

Certainly, these types of experiences should be ongoing in our classrooms in order to provide a variety of ways to engage students. However, at times, we can feel pressure to “forget” the importance of nurturing classroom environments in ways that result in vibrant spaces of creativity and exploration. As we prepare and approach the testing season, let us remember that we teach children, not tests.




2 thoughts on “Beyond Test Prep

  1. Tis the season for test prep! I love all of your ideas. We all need some ways to clear our heads and take a break when testing is on the horizon. Flying paper airplanes is a great diversion for everyone! It also plays to different student strengths and gives us all a chance to flex some different parts of our brains! Thanks for the shout out Sonja!

    To add to your list of ways to ease test prep stress, my classes always love relaxing and basking in some great independent reading. We all look forward to our cafe-style, book club-like sharing of our most recent books during “Book Bistro”. I put students in groups of 3-5 based on the books they have read over the last month or so. Before the event, they prepare discussion prompts about their books and come to the “Book Bistro” ready to sustain a genuine literature based conversation with their peers. (They also bring a healthy snack to share) Students sit in tables, talk, question, and snack while getting excited about new books. At the end of the session, all the students evaluate the success of their group talk and as a class we reflect on our event. “Book Bistro” feels like a special party in our classroom and all the while the students are sharing a love of books and practicing critical reading skills that make great readers.

    I originally adapted the idea after reading this article.

    Good luck and happy reading,



    • Thanks for sharing this Abbe! Book Bistro is fantastic and it’s great watching your students enjoy sharing the books they’ve read and loved!


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