Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Testing is a Sport (and Other Teaching Analogies)

The past week or so, while I wrestled with trying to tackle another column on the five-paragraph essay, I found myself monitoring all those little things I say in class. So, as the school year begins to rev up into high gear, I thought maybe something more lighthearted would be fun.

I've discovered I like to use analogies while teaching. One of my favorite comparisons involves the metaphor that a team of teachers wore emblazoned on a T-shirt one year: testing is a sport.

Of course many kids disagreed with us, which led to some interesting class discussions. For instance, while testing doesn't get you all sweaty unless you are overcome with nerves, high-stakes testing does require skill, concentration, preparation and putting on your game face. Football players don't step onto the football field without their gear and game plan. They've studied the opponent. They arrive with the attitude of "let's win this." Testing is no different. Kids need their gear (pencils, calculators, etc.). They've prepared—their teachers have coached them and they've learned the skills. They head in with hopefully a positive attitude. And then, it's test (game) time. They are on their own. The teacher can't play the game for them, or take the test.

I like the football analogy because it makes for a great visual. I also ask them if any football player would put the ball down on the one-yard line and say, "Okay, close enough, I'm done." The answer is always no. This helps them picture my next point—why do you give up on a test halfway through? You don't score points by stopping short. I also use the swimming analogy—Michael Phelps won't win until his hand touches the wall. You have to go the distance, and oftentimes without hearing your coach. This is what test-taking is all about.

Another comparison I like to use relates to the first Matrix movie. Most kids have seen this, and there's a scene where Neo literally sees the computer code. It's at this moment he is able to break free and defeat the enemy. Well, deciphering English is like seeing the matrix. I tell them writers already know the matrix and how to manipulate it. It's in our heads when we toss in a simile or metaphor into our writing. The matrix is buried in the subconscious. It's why I can figure out the "who done it" in a mystery in the first five minutes. I can see what the author is trying to do—the clues he plants in plain sight that most miss. Learning English means being able see, understand and control the matrix. While you won't read something and start going "simile, metaphor, simile," you will be able to subconsciously read on a different level, your brain naturally processing and identifying and categorizing this information on a deeper plane of comprehension. You get why the author has done what he did—why the matrix of that story is just so.

I also play off this analogy. I tell them that writers are tricksters. They like to toss things in to see if anyone catches it. For example, in one episode of The Simpsons, a house falls down. Near the house is a sign reading, "The House of Usher." The movie She's the Man was based on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, and there are all sorts of allusions, including the names of the high schools—Cornwall and Illyria. Again, this is part of seeing the matrix—and often a writer's inside joke. If you aren't well-versed in English, you're not going to catch these references

For poetry I use an additional analogy—comparing it to an onion (or an ogre if you've seen Shrek). Poetry has layers and layers and it's not necessarily easy to figure out without peeling back the surface. Poetry is the highest of the cerebral activities. Even Shel Silverstein (whose poetry most kids know and loved) in his simplicity was deep. Students often get flustered with poetry and need to realize that the author is deliberately making them work—it's those layers again, as Shrek explains to Donkey. You're going to have to work for the truth.

Finally, I use analogies when I discuss student behavior. One refers to horses. It's called "keeping the blinders on." I use this a lot when students are much more interested in the world around them instead of what is on the desk in front of them. Like a horse who only needs to see the finish line, they need to put the blinders on and see only what they need to see, which is the literature they are studying. And speaking of that literature, did you know English can be like taking a driving test? To pass a driver's test, a student must demonstrate a level of mastery over a set of driving criteria. It's nothing personal—you either drove and then parallel parked correctly or you didn't. English is often the same way. That essay either used proper grammar or MLA format or it didn't, and depending on the number of errors, the student either met the criteria and passed, or failed. Same for punctuation, grammar, and so forth.

Students need visuals, and analogies let students picture what you are talking about. So now that I've gotten you started, please feel free to use mine, and to share yours. I'm always up for something new.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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