Standardized test prep: three dreaded words teachers face each spring. Precious learning time may be replaced with practice problems and packets of worksheets. For years, I resisted and procrastinated. I taught my standard lessons until a few days before our Fifth Grade Ohio State Science Test and then rushed through a practice test and a whirlwind review of science content. I justified the procrastination by saying regular classroom instruction was sufficient preparation, and I didn’t have time to spend reviewing when I was still teaching new content right up until the end.
A few years ago, I changed my mind. Concepts I taught in the fall were forgotten by spring. My students needed to create models of the earth and its seasons one more time, to calculate speed of moving objects, to reacquaint themselves with a year’s worth of vocabulary. Practice tests were not addressing misconceptions or helping students stretch their thinking. We needed a more robust review process.
I also wanted an entertaining and engaging review unit. Fifth graders can smell test review coming from a mile away, but if they’re working toward a fun goal, they get on board quickly. The result: our two-week Science Ninja Training Unit.
Setting the Stage
Science Ninjas are highly trained experts with razor sharp thinking skills. Their guiding principles are perseverance, curiosity, stamina, and collaboration. These principles are woven into our class activities throughout the year, and students must use all of them to complete their training.
My inspiration was the movie Kung Fu Panda—yeah, I know, it’s not about ninjas. The clumsy panda Po is transformed into a powerful warrior with help from the wise tortoise Grand Master Oogway. Grueling training sessions lead to better skills, self-confidence, and an invincible Po by film’s end. My students must also prepare themselves mentally and physically.
I begin with some cartoon motivation, showing a few clips from Kung Fu Panda and asking students what changes Po undergoes during the movie. Obviously I don’t want students roundhouse kicking one another or throwing pencils like ninja stars, so we talk about how Science Ninjas rely on their brains rather than their fists. Making mistakes and pushing through difficult tasks will all be part of the journey.
Our test preparation consists of completing various tasks during the two-week unit. Giving students choice about where to start and how to complete the tasks empowers them in the process. There’s an online scavenger hunt where students answer questions based on different science units. Links connect students to helpful videos, simulations, and text-based sites to help them find the answers. Many of the links are optional—if students need the support it’s available, but they may choose to answer the question on their own. They must answer a certain number correctly in order to pass the task and move closer to becoming a Science Ninja, so they rarely rush through or produce sloppy work.
There are also matching activities, short independent labs, and activities where students model or draw a concept. For example, on the Food Chain Gizmo, students manipulate an ecosystem by doling out diseases or increasing populations. They squeal with delight when their food chain collapses or when their population graphs explode off the top of the screen. Each of these tasks also include a short assessment that students check on their own and then verify with the teacher before moving on to the next task.
Not all of the work is independent. Teacher-led stations allows me to address misconceptions and help stretch students with challenging tasks. I meet with groups based on students’ needs while others work independently or with partners. Some of the tasks are based on released questions from the State Science Test.
Creating hands-on activities based on the released questions makes the process more fun. For example, students use light bulbs and radiometers to simulate sunlight at different times of the year. The radiometer spins more rapidly as the light bulb gets closer, just as our hemisphere warms as it tilts toward the sun in summer. With the Post-it app, students take a picture of a group of space objects written on cards and then rearrange them on their iPads, classifying them as smaller than, the same size, or larger than Earth.
We use images taken during our trips to the woods to create food webs and to think about how changes in populations affect ecosystems. Students draw arrows to show energy transfer and classify organisms as consumers, producers, or decomposers. The hands-on work incorporates necessary elements for testing but conveys the information in a less formal and more engaging way.
We end the training with a celebration. While the students knew they were practicing for the state assessment, they enjoyed the process much more than if we had just cranked through practice tests. No matter what the test results, framing the review as a fun project increased students’ learning and hopefully created a good memory students will carry with them into sixth grade.