Existentially STAAR-Crossed

Welcome to STAAR Season 2017! For those of us teaching courses with EOCs (end-of-course exams administered by the state), this is the most stress-filled, anxiety-ridden, headache-inducing time of year, and that’s not just my allergies speaking (hello, Spring!).

A little background for any readers not in or from Texas: STAAR stands for State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. High schoolers take English I, English II, Biology, Algebra I, and US History. They must pass all five tests in order to graduate, and they can retest every time it’s offered (December, March, and in the summer) until they pass it. Every state has their own version of the STAAR test, and as with everything else in education, those tests are constantly changing. Even the STAAR made a significant change this year, removing the short answer response (SAR) questions from the test (which is a whole debate in itself!).

So here we are, March 27, 2017, the day before the English I EOC. Even as I type this, my students are working hard on a review quizlet live game in a last ditch effort to help them remember something for this test, while keeping it a little fun and light. We spent all of last week on intensive STAAR essay writing, the week before that on intensive reading STAAR questions, and the past 24 weeks of instruction on prepping for this test.

My About Me page says, “I teach English I with a focus on STAAR prep, at least until the end of March – then it’s all Shakespeare!” This is my third year of teaching English I to freshmen. Every year feels like it has gone more and more to straight STAAR testing prep. I don’t know how to feel about this.

I know I’m not the only teacher frustrated with the overwhelming amount of standardized testing we put our students through. I’m always thinking of that old quote usually attributed to Einstein: “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” Standardized tests simply cannot show a student’s true abilities. Or a teacher’s for that matter. But they’re required for accountability, and there’s nothing I can do about it right this moment.

This blog is a reflective tool for me. Every time I reach the STAAR test, I find myself reflecting back on what I’ve done over the year to prepare my students, wondering if it was enough, thinking about what I can do differently next year.

I spent a lot of time reading Lord of the Flies this year. Should I have spent that time on STAAR prep? Did reading a full-length novel help build their reading stamina and prepare them just a little bit more for a 5-hour test? Did they learn anything about analyzing characters? Can they transfer that to the test? Did I spend too much time on test prep? Did I spend enough time on test prep? Should they have written more? Should they have written less? Should I have tried harder to assign homework? Should I have utilized more technology? Less technology?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. I probably never will. Sometimes one of the hardest things to do as a teacher is to trust yourself. I know that I busted my butt all year to be the best teacher I could for these students. I have to trust that I did all I could to help them succeed. I have to remember that teaching is constantly changing, and every year will bring different lessons.

I do feel pretty confident in one area: the expository essay. I really looked at and analyzed my students’ needs this year and changed my approach to the essay.

Problem: Students only read the quote in the box and wrote their essay on the wrong topic.

Solution: I focused first on having them cross out the unnecessary, confusing information in the essay prompt, so I could make sure they write their essay on the correct part of the prompt.

1.24 prompt annotated

Scribble out the box! Scribble out the “Think about…”! Circle the “Write an essay…”!

Problem: Their essays lacked paragraphs and clear organization.

Solution: I broke down the essay for them, giving them multiple examples. First the thesis. Then two examples – connected to the thesis. Finally a conclusion that restates the thesis.

The biggest thing that I believe helped them finally learn how to organize their essays was my essay form sheet. I broke down the 26 lines that STAAR gives them into 4 boxes, one for each paragraph. My students now know to break their essay into 3-10-10-3. 3 lines for the introduction/thesis. 10 lines for example one. 10 lines for example two. 3 lines for the conclusion. After I started using this form, my students’ writing improved by miles. When I took the form away, and gave them the STAAR 26-line box, I showed them how to mark off the same paragraphs as a guide to remind them of their paragraphs.

The essays they wrote last week (and these precious kiddos wrote FOUR essays last week!) were leaps and bounds better than what they wrote when I first got them in August. I have more confidence about this STAAR essay than I ever have in the past. (If you’re interested, check out the Resources page for the materials I used in these lessons.)


Did I focus on STAAR writing too much? How will writing a 26-line expository essay on a standardized test help them in the real world? Can they transfer what they’ve learned about organizing this essay to help them with other types of writing? Was it all worth it?

I am constantly questioning myself, questioning my methods, questioning my lessons, questioning everything. The day I stop questioning is the day I’ll know I’m burned out. Teaching is an art. Teaching means constantly changing and evolving and adapting.

Maybe I made mistakes this year… Ok, I definitely made mistakes this year. But mistakes are just lessons in disguise.


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