April Fools' Day & High Stakes Testing: The Power of Surprise

For many of us, it is high stakes testing season. And for all of us, it is April Fools' Day. Coming from a family of pranksters, I'm conditioned to be on my toes, vigilantly on guard for any possible pranks heading my way. April Fools' Day pulls me out of my normal routine, out of the drab of Winter's last gasp, and I find myself walking around with an awareness that fosters a sort of spidey sense.


The power (and happiness) of April Fools' Day lies in the surprise. And I can't help but feel like we all need a little power (and happiness) while in the midst of high stakes testing season.

From Massachusetts to New York to Tennessee, teachers are sharing their observations of their students midway through their test prep unit. In the moments before meetings begin, teachers are confessing the real problems student face during high stakes testing season - they are sharing stories about how their students glaze over the moment they mention 'the test.'  And as many states schedule their state English exam after students return from Spring break, teachers are fearing the lack of retention they see in their students.

Perhaps we can channel the surprise and excitement of April Fools' Day into our test preparation during high stakes testing season as a way to foster a sort of spidey sense that keeps students on their toes and not drifting into the drabs of test prep. Adding a quick element of surprise can:

  • interrupt the infamous 'test prep glaze' that permeates our classrooms mid-test prep season
  • help break the routine of read, discuss, bubble in answer, read, discuss, bubble in answer, etc.
  • add laughter to a very serious and high stakes testing climate, thereby reducing stress hormones and the flight-or-flight response (here's some super helpful and smart stats on laughter, health and coping with the stress of life's problems)

There are, of course, many ways to incorporate surprise into the day (taping prizes underneath students' chairs Oprah-style is one of my personal favorites). But today's tiny detail revolves around surprising students with unit previews. 

What are unit previews?

Unit previews are like movie previews - they preview the coming attractions of future units. By nature of  both Springtime and post-test planning on your part, the writing and reading units that follow your state exam are most likely a joy to be in: fantasy, historical fiction, poetry, memoir. Surprising students by spending a class period on unit previews in the midst of a test preparation unit can be just the thing to pull them out of the multiple choice monotony.

Setting Up the Surprise

As you know from enduring multiple April Fools' Day surprises, the key to a successful surprise is the set-up. Teachers in Massachusetts inspired a fantastic unit preview for an upcoming unit on Historical Fiction. Students gathered on a Monday to what they thought would be another test preparation lesson. Instead the teachers and I set up the surprise by saying:

You are in the midst of being strong test takers. You have been working so diligently on this, I've decided we are going to take a surprise break today. Ok, before I tell you what we are going to do today, I first want to tell you my favorite part about going to the movies: watching the previews! I love to get to the theater early and watch all the previews for the new movies. Watching previews gets me excited about all the great movies I want to watch.

Today I want to give you a preview for a new and exciting unit you'll be learning after the test.  You will be going back into history to learn about real time periods and read and write historical fiction or stories that are made up about characters that could have experienced life in those times.  I've brought the first lesson from the unit in for you to try today, as a way to take a quick break from our test prep and preview the fun work that lies ahead.

The combination of the element of surprise and an exciting unit preview perked the ears of the test-weary students. Teachers focused on Immigration: 1880-1930 and we used Paul Fleishman's brand new book, The Matchbox Diary, as inspiration. Students dove into their writing that day:

Planning for Historical Fiction by Brainstorming a Main Character's inside & outside traits, as well as problem

Writing a Story Blurb that Previews the Plot of the Story

Fiction Writing Planning 2 Fiction Writing Blurb 2 Unit previews not only plant a seed to foster engagement in a future unit, but the work of the session can help reignite student learning. In this classroom, for example, the volume of writing increased dramatically as they took a quick break from essay writing. Stamina also increased, as students remained focused on their writing for 30+ minutes. And an overall feeling of accomplishment and pride overtook the classroom as students worked with their writing partners and shared their writing.

So whether you channel your inner Ebert and create unit previews for your students, or your inner Oprah and surprise them with under-the-chair gifts, perhaps adding an element of surprise during this test prep season will be just the thing to reignite learning, energy and inquiry.

Big Idea: Fostering Student Engagement             Tiny Detail: Creating Unit Previews to Spark Engagement & Curiousity

Kate and Maggie