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Have You Considered How Habits of Mind Might Relieve Test Anxiety

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By Terri Hamilton Director Pedagogics Coaching Group

A girlfriend and I were talking about her students. It was testing time, and she was dealing with the usual high anxiety, stress-induced stretch of months in the year. She was expressing the familiar frustration of watching her students miss questions on the state test that not only do they know, but she has ongoing evidence that supports them having learned it. I shared with her a personal experience I had in college.

I was in Anatomy and Physiology, one of my most favorite classes, and I had just received a test back that I didn’t perform as well as I had hoped. As I packed my belongings and headed toward the door, my teacher stopped me. She said; “ I know that you know this material. You did your work correctly, and you asked the right questions during lecture. Questions that only a deep understanding of this material would inspire. Why did you miss so many basic questions?” I didn’t have an answer. I knew that I understood the material. I knew the time and effort I put into learning each piece of information. She asked how I felt when I was taking tests. That was easy, ANXIOUS! I, like my friend’s students, dealt with test anxiety which got in the way of my success when taking tests.

She asked me what I did to overcome that anxiety, and I said; “practice.” However, that wouldn’t have been possible, had my professor not taken the time to question me in a manner which helped me to feel comfortable sharing. She listened to me, not to hear an excuse, but to gain understanding. A small, yet powerful,  gesture.

Without knowing it, she was using the Habit of Mind Listening with Understanding and Empathy, characterized by devoting energy towards another person’s thoughts and ideas; and making an effort to gain insight into their viewpoint. I suggested to my friend that she might consider starting there with her students this year. Not only would it give her insight into how her students feel about test-taking but function as a type of formative assessment. With more understanding, she could work with their students to solve any barrier to success. Think about it, with more understanding, what could you do?

 

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Part 8: Finale – Heeeey….It’s All Good!

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Consider all things accomplished! You and your students have arrived at the resolution of our story. You are now seeing more than one small group for differentiated instruction, and your students are working hard in their independent practice. All things are working together for the greater good; including authentic, effective learning, maintenance and application of skills and concepts, and refinement of individual and collaborative learning practices. Here is what that session may look like.

Final Act – Stage 4:

  • Review the rules and routines. Review the expectations for both activities and how to manage materials.
  • Remind students of the focus. Begin the session by explaining what students will focus on regarding the previous day’s debrief.
  • Start the session. Give the signal for students to begin the session. Remember to try to keep independent practice at the same time each day.
  • Implement small group instruction; focusing your attention on your instruction and not on the room. You remain the quiet observer. Though you remain aware of what is happening in the room, make a mental note of what needs addressing during the debrief and move on with your instruction. Remember to allow your students to problem solve and work things out on their own. It is great practice for students to learn how to be independent learners and how to monitor their productivity and work habits.
  • Close the session. Give the signal for the end of the session. Allow students to manage their materials and to come back together as a whole without your input. Your job is to observe their practice.
  • Debrief the session. Say it with me: “The debrief is the most important part of the session.” Ask; “What worked today and what do you feel good about?” and “What didn’t work today and how can we fix it?” Allow students to respond while you facilitate the discussion. Agree, ask clarifying questions, mark important insights, and bring to light any important observations not discussed. Record their responses.
  • Set goals for the next session. The final question is; “What should we focus on for tomorrow’s session?” Allow students to choose what the focus for improving their practice will be. Relate goals either to the rules or the procedures of the practice. Keep it simple! Have them come up with solutions to the problem notating each and post your agreements.

Keep your expectations high, and remember to pat yourself and your students on the back. Acknowledge your rooms hard work, tenacity, and growth. I’m proud of you!

 

Cheers,

Terri Hamilton

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Part 7: Act 3 – Pump Up the Jam!

Act3_Stage3

You have arrived! Your students are ready; you are ready. It is time to individualize instruction and pull small groups. Once students can accomplish Act 2 to an 85% – 90% level of successfulness (and only then), they are ready for Act 3. In this stage expectations have not changed, there is simply a third activity added. Students’ responsibility is consistent with what they have accomplished in the second stage of independent practice. In this act you will pull your first small group; and just as in the 3rd act of a play, all things developed in the prior two acts will come to full bloom. That is what this stage is all about, your freedom to now pull a group of students to offer individualized and differentiated instruction while the remaining students work effectively as independent learners. Here is what that session may look like:

Act 3 – Stage 3:

  • Review the rules and routines. Review the expectations for both activities and how to manage materials.
  • Remind students of the focus. Begin the session by explaining what students will focus on regarding the previous day’s debrief.
  • Start the session. Give the signal for students to begin the session. Remember to try to keep independent practice at the same time each day.
  • Implement one small instructional group session. Implement your small group; focusing your attention on your instruction and not on the room. Though you remain aware of what is happening in the room, make a mental note of what needs addressing during the debrief and move on with your instruction. Most importantly, trust the work you and your students have done together to get to this point. Allow your students to problem solve and to work things out on their own. This process is great practice for students to learn how to be independent learners and how to monitor their productivity and work habits.
  • Observe the practice. After your small instructional group is complete, your role is to be a quiet observer. You are actively monitoring how successful students are able to leave small group, transition into independent practice and how effective the other students are in their independent practice.
  • Close the session. Give the signal for the end of the session. Allow students to manage their materials and to come back together as a whole without your input. Your job is to observe their practice.
  • Debrief the session. Again, the debrief is the most important part of the session. You may ask; “Did we accomplish our goal?” and “How far were we from accomplishing our goal?” Continue with the usual questions and allow students to respond while you facilitate the discussion. Agree, ask clarifying questions, mark important insights, and bring to light any important observations not discussed. Record their responses.
  • Set goals for the next session. The final question is; “What should we focus on for tomorrow’s session?” Allow students to choose what the focus for improving their practice will be. Relate goals either to the rules or the procedures of the practice. Keep it simple! Have them come up with solutions to the problem notating each and post your agreements.

Keep your expectations high, and remember to be gentle within this process. If you find students are struggling, move back into stage two until they are ready.

By: Terri Hamilton

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Part 6: Act 2 – Ch…Ch…Changes!

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You are on your way to an effective and productive Independent Practice session. It won’t be long before you can begin to individualize instruction and pull small groups. Once students can accomplish Act 1 to an 85% – 90% level of success, and only then, they are ready for Act 2. In this stage, students are given an additional activity, for a total of two, and focus on transitioning from one into the other. This stage is all about transitioning. Here is what that session may look like.

Act 2 – Stage 2:

  • Review the rules and routines. Review the expectations for both activities and how to manage materials.
  • Introduce the new focus. Begin the session by explaining the focus will be on how students transition from one activity to another. As a side note; students need to transition into the known activity. This means the first activity student will be working on is a different activity, not new, but new to the independent practice block. Organizing in this way will help students manage their transition since they will be moving into a known practice; of which they have experienced a high level of success.
  • Start the session. Give the signal for students to begin the session. As much as possible, try to keep independent practice at the same time each day. You may consider having it more than once a day – one for language arts and the other for math.
  • Observe the practice. Your role is to be a quiet observer. You are actively monitoring two things: how successful students are able to complete the “new” activity, and; how successful students are with transitioning into the next activity. Make a mental note of what is and isn’t working. Remember that you are interested in the practice, which is the focus of the session.
  • Close the session. Give the signal for the end of the session. If you are considering music, it is a way in which students may monitor their clean-up. Select a piece of music that gives students no more than 2 minutes for cleanup. Upon hearing the music cue, students know that it is time to stop what they are doing and to complete cleaning up by the music’s end. When used in this manner, music serves as a self-monitoring tool. Allow students to manage their materials and to come back together as a whole without your input. Your job is to observe their practice.
  • Debrief the session. Again, the debrief is the most important part of the session. Ask; “What worked today and what do you feel good about?” and “What didn’t work today and how can we fix it?” Allow students to respond while you facilitate the discussion. Agree, ask clarifying questions, mark important insights, and bring to light any important observations not discussed. Record their responses.
  • Set goals for the next session. The final question is; “What should our focus be for tomorrow’s session?” Allow students to choose what the focus for improving their practice will be. Relate goals either to the rules or the procedures of the practice. Keep it simple! Have them come up with solutions to the problem, notating each, and post your agreements.

Keep your expectations high. As with the second act of a play, where things begin to get a bit topsy turvy, this is the most difficult stage to master. Stay consistent and committed to the practice, and remember not to cheapen the debrief process. When students are reflective about their practice, learning is deepened.

By: Terri Hamilton

 

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Part 5: I Can See Clearly Now!

 

 

Act1_Stage1You have introduced the start of the Independent Practice session, reviewed the rules, identified possible trouble spots, and reminded students of alternative choices to disruptive behaviors. Great job! This next stage can be compared to getting to know the characters, the situation, and the foundation of a story plot. It’s time to put those skills into practice! In Act 1, students engage in a session of independent practice. They will repeat this activity as long as they are at this stage. Here’s what it may look like.

Act 1 – Stage 1:

  • Review the rules and routines. Review the expectations for the activity and how to manage any related materials.
  • Set the focus. Select one thing to focus on during each session: for example, completing the activity, working collaboratively, or managing materials. After your first session, this can be what the class chose as their goal for the day (see the last bullet).
  • Start the session. However you would like to begin this session, whether a “Let’s begin” or ringing a bell, give the signal for students to know that the session has begun. You may consider telling students how long the duration of the session will be to support them in monitoring and managing their time. For example; “Today independent practice will last 10 minutes.”
  • Observe the practice. Your role is to be a quiet observer. This is the hardest part. They will try to pull your attention, but don’t give in! Allow students to find solutions to their problems, to rely on their classmates as a resource, and to discover how to work independently in an effective and efficient manner. Make a mental note of what is and isn’t working; you will address it later. I suggest not making eye contact with students but instead keeping a soft eye on the room. This will show that you are interested in the practice, which is the focus of the session.
  • Close the session. Give the signal for the end of the session, which may be verbal, a bell, or an alarm. This should last no more than two minutes and is done in an organized, methodical manner. Allow students to manage their materials and come back together as a whole without your input. Your job is to observe their practice.
  • Debrief the session. The debrief is the most important part of the session. This is where students are held accountable for their learning and become metacognitive about their practice. In the debrief, the only questions asked are; “What worked today?,” “What do you feel good about?,” and “What didn’t work today and how can we fix it?” Allow students to respond while you facilitate the discussion. Agree, ask clarifying questions, mark important insights, and bring to light any important observations not discussed.You may consider writing down responses.
  • Set goals for the next session. The final question to ask is, “What should we focus on for tomorrow’s session?” Allow students to choose what the focus for improving their practice will be. Have them come up with solutions to the problem notating each and posting it. This serves as a commitment to improving their practice, and since it has come from them, there is buy in.

Choose your battles. Trust the process; and believe in your students’ ability to learn and grow. With high expectations, your students will be sure to master this stage quickly.

By: Terri Hamilton

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Part 4: Let’s Get It Started In Here!

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Introducing Independent Practice into the classroom is probably one of the most important yet challenging periods in the classroom. Ironically it is not something that you can just jump into which could be compared to starting a play from the third act. There is a gentle ease into getting students to a point where they are able to work successfully on-task and independently much as there is a flow to the plot of a story. So, let’s keep this analogy going and look at each stage of independent practice as the acts of a play.

Introduction:

  • Introduce Independent Practice. This a block of time where the students will work independently or collaboratively without your assistance. Since you will be working with a small group of their peers, it is important that they take responsibility for their own learning. Reaffirm that during this time, you are working in a sacred learning space with their peers and cannot be interrupted unless absolutely necessary. Reassure students that everyone will have their sacred learning time with you each week.
  • Review the rules. Keep it simple. Anywhere from 3 to 5 rules is sufficient for success and conveys what students are responsible for and being held accountable to. Yes, I said it. They are being held accountable. For example, I used 3 rules: 1) Don’t talk to the teacher; 2) Manage your materials correctly, and; 3) Do what you are supposed to do. They seem simplistic, but there is a gamut of behaviors which fit into these 3 expectations. Review each rule explicitly and provide students examples to ensure their success. For example, my students understood that unless there was blood, illness, or a displaced body part- not to interrupt my small group. I would ask, “If you have a bathroom emergency, do you come to me?” Students would respond, “No. Go to Sam, the bathroom monitor.” I would respond, “If you discover your ear is hanging below your elbow, do you come to me?” Students respond with giggles, “YES!”
  • Provide alternatives to disrupting the small group. Remind students of how they may meet their needs without interrupting small group learning; who to go to for questions, how to go to the restroom, where to find the supplies they need, etc…
  • Review the routines. Remind students of the parameters for working independently by asking them explicit questions about how to manage any materials or activities. This may include what to do if you break a pencil, how to travel across the room, where to put finished work, or how to attend to the level of noise in the room.
  • Ask for any clarifying questions. It’s just that simple. Provide wait-time to ensure students have time to think about and ask any question. This way, there will be no excuse for not knowing.

A reminder of the rules, routines, and activities should happen before every session. It is a quick hit, less than a minute, that keeps the expectations of practice at the forefront of students’ awareness. Remember this may feel “top heavy” at first, as consistency is key; but over time this will reduce dramatically. With that said, you are now ready for Act One!

By: Terri Hamilton

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Part 3: You Mean My Students Can Do This?

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Independent practice can be daunting. My first time attempting it was an exercise in failure. Picture a new kindergarten classroom with 20 students. Tommy was running with scissors, and Tammy, who was monitoring her classmates, reported anything she deemed wrong. Very few students were focused and on-task. The result was a room full of frustrated and flustered people. It wasn’t until Teacher Nancy came, and modeled how to run groups, that I began to experience success. As I refined my implementation the class was more successful, resulting in students ready to soar with this important instructional practice.

I am sure you are wondering what exactly made the difference for me. First and foremost it was the understanding that, in order for everyone to get the best out of this instructional block, my objective was to prepare my students for success. Everything I did was for that purpose. If my students weren’t successful, then ultimately they missed out on important practice and I missed out on meeting their individual needs. This is a team effort. How do I set students up for independent practice now? Here are 3 ways:

  1. Teach activities long before students engage in them independently: This step calls for advance planning on your part. Think of activities that students do on a regular basis that can eventually be released to them as independent work. For example; Primary students may focus on writing skills to help develop their hand strength and coordination. All students may use the time to read independently or engage in fluency practice, create a response to something read, revise or edit writing, work on research, or complete a math skill-related task. This is a reoccurring task that is important for learning but can eventually be released to students to implement on their own or collaboratively.
  2. Embrace classroom routines: From day one in your classroom, begin to teach the routines that will be important for the smooth implementation of independent practice. Things to consider include how to: work collaboratively in groups or in pairs; read independently; manage the materials in the classroom; perform jobs or responsibilities; transition from one activity to another; and take care of basic needs (go to the restroom, use the tissue, get water…).
  3. Establish the rules and expectations, and be consistent: This starts day one of class and is reinforced throughout the year. Management is key! When students know and understand the expectations, when they have had practice to refine their behavior and have been supported in their efforts, the ease of releasing them to work independently is increased a hundred-fold! This is not an exaggeration. Management is 95% of whether independent practice (and small group instruction) is successful or not.

Remember, students need ample practice to be ready to take on the task of working without the guidance of the teacher. They need time to build fluency. You will know they are ready when they can work or perform a task to a rate of 85% – 90% success. Literally, by being proactive and consistent in your instructional practice, students are set up for success.

By: Terri Hamilton