Local children’s book author and artist Shannon Fitzgerald utilized her experience as a former elementary school teacher to help tackle an issue educators face across the nation: how to help their students battle test anxiety. Fitzgerald recruited high school artist Danielle Losos to illustrate the book.
Every student knows that feeling: the class is told to be quiet, the tests have been distributed, pencils are in hand and the time begins.
Across the grades, this is when test anxiety kicks in, whether they have studied hard or not. And the results can be quite troubling.
That’s why Shannon Fitzgerald, Hillsborough artist and author, saw the need to address the issue faced by both students and teachers alike. In her latest children’s book “Test Day, Team Player,” Fitzgerald tells the story of a classroom of students who are nervous about the test they must take the next day. So the teacher makes a simple – yet powerful – suggestion that helps unify the students and refocus that worry into teamwork and confidence building.
The book is brilliantly illustrated by East Chapel Hill High School student Danielle Losos, who is a student of Fitzgerald’s husband.
Real life, real classroom
In “Test Day, Team Player,” Fitzgerald recalled her experience formerly working as a fourth-grade teacher at New Hope Elementary School. Fitzgerald said she saw the same thing happen every year when exams were around the corner; the focus on fear and dread took precedence.
“When test time rolls around and all the sudden students who were these shining, confident kids most of the year, very creative and inquisitive – all the sudden they’re having these tummy aches, they’re not sleeping at night, and they’re all worried about the test,” Fitzgerald said. “So I actually used the idea of the story in my classroom and had great results with how wonderful it turned out for my students. They were so happy and it was just a much better year.”
Fitzgerald continued to practice the anxiety-tackling idea she came up with for the remainder of her years teaching, but once she left the classroom, the sentiment to assist young people struggling with test anxiety persevered.
“I thought, ‘I wish I could still make a difference for kids’ because testing isn’t going away,” Fitzgerald said. “And you read a lot about it in the newspaper, the high-stakes testing … So I decided that I would write this as a story for it to be shared all over the place in classrooms and help many, many more kids than I ever could if I stayed in the classroom.”
The idea that the teacher poses in “Test Day, Team Player” is quite simple, but it leads to a great classroom victory: everybody wears the same color shirt on the day of the test to remind the students that everyone was in this together. Having the same kind of shirt suggests uniformity, as though everyone is on a team working toward a common goal. It also implies equal playing ground – everyone was presented the same material throughout the year and everyone must take the test at the end too.
As a teacher, Fitzgerald saw great success in this simple idea. In one class project, Fitzgerald had her students tie-dye shirts together and wear those shirts on the testing day.
“It’s different for each class, and it’s kind of fun to brainstorm ideas,” Fitzgerald said. “Some classes like to have t-shirts that they wear for field trips and that’s something you could definitely do… When the kids can help make the shirt, I think it makes it even that much better, because then they have the really positive, fun memory attached to the shirts already.”
Truth from stories
Fitzgerald hopes the story can impact students and influence and encourage teachers.
“I think that sense of unease doesn’t go away no matter how old you are,” Fitzgerald said. “We all know that our attitude hugely impacts how well we do at anything that we’re doing. So this is a really simple idea to implement, but it’s really powerful in how we are changing the way that kids look at things and we makes them feel like they’re not alone.”
The idea goes beyond test preparation into a more unifying aspect.
“I’ve always, in my classroom, felt like teamwork is a really important concept for students,” Fitzgerald said. “And I always created an environment of ‘this is your school family and we look after each other and we help each other.’ When it comes to testing time, obviously, you can’t technically help each other, but this is a way to still feel that sense of teamwork. It’s so simple and yet you feel like you’re a part of group and you all care about each other. It just makes you feel better.”
Test anxiety strikes at any age – but arguably, the older you get, the more important the results from the exam are. “Test Day, Team Player” targets an elementary school audience, but the concept can be applied to the higher grades as well.
“If I was teaching middle school, I would totally use this before the EOG’s for middle school kids,” Fitzgerald said. “Because the thing that I find is that it doesn’t matter how old a person is, learning something through a story is always a fun way to learn something. It would be interesting to me to see if anybody in the upper grade would be interested in trying a similar concept for their students.”
Piecing the picture together
An artist herself, Fitzgerald realized early on that the book needed an additional touch – and it so happened that her husband found just the perfect artist in his own classroom.
Danielle Losos is a junior at East Chapel Hill High School and said that art is and has been a major hobby of hers since an early age and she uses it to relax and express herself.
When asked if she would be willing to reach out to Shannon to talk, Losos immediately took initiative. Danielle used watercolor pencils for the illustrations in “Test Day, Team Player” after having outlined the drawings first in pencil.
“When I saw [Danielle’s] illustrations, I knew she was the right person,” Fitzgerald said. “The first time we met she was showing me what she had done and I saw the pictures, it was like, ‘Oh my! It is the story in pictures. I love this! This is awesome.’ And then I knew she was going to do the most amazing job and I think she did. I’m really impressed with what she did. I’m very pleased to have connected with her in that kind of funny way.”
Losos recognizes the huge issue at play and also knows the effects firsthand of testing anxiety at the high school level.
“My peers and I, we struggle every day to combat the stress levels involved with testing and constant exam preparation,” Losos said. “Especially at my age, when your scores on these tests can have a big impact on your future. There are a lot of negative attitudes surrounding them. So for that reason, I think it’s so important to instill in young people’s minds at a young age the value of not stressing about tests, about really working as a community to tackle the exam. The communal aspect is really about knowing that everyone’s in it together and it’s sort of something that has to be done, it’s an equalizer among people. Everyone has to take the test, so you might as well take comfort in your friends around you.”
Losos said she’s leaning towards a future career in science, but is keeping her options open for college. She said in any case, she will keep art close to her side wherever she goes.
“I am just so thankful for having had the opportunity and I definitely learned a lot about the publishing process,” Losos said. “Shannon has mentored me so much and it’s so great to have her help and guide and influence through all of it.”
Fitzgerald is currently at work on the next installment of her holiday children’s book series, this time focusing on Thanksgiving. She released a book on Halloween back in October and said that one on Valentine’s Day is also in the works.
“I love to write, I love to create and I love to teach,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s kind of like, I feel so grateful to be able to be putting all of it together and making a difference for everybody.”
Looking for the book?
Copies are available locally at Purple Crow Books, 109 W. King St., the Hillsborough Arts Council Gift Shop, 102 N. Churton St., or at the public library, 137 W. Margaret Lane. Folks can also contact Fitzgerald directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.