So, I’ve been thinking about the assessments I give my students. My students have been thinking about the assessments too, mostly in a could-we-not-do-that kind of way.
Earlier in the month I announced it was time to write a book review of the novel we had just finished reading.
Wild applause. Groans all around. These are second semester seniors. Please can we do something else. Can we do a presentation? Can we work in groups? I made no promises, but went home and thought about it. I thought about my goals for the assignment, our remaining time, and the final project, which is not changing. I also went to a talk by New York Times film critic A. O. Scott. Now, I do not currently watch a lot of movies because if my husband and I go out, I prefer to eat and talk, all without cooking or cleaning. We are now just in the no-babysitter-needed phase, but before that, if I was going to pay for a babysitter and sit in silence, the movie had to be awfully good. So, not a lot of movies got watched. Anyhow, a colleague asked if I wanted to go hear A. O. Scott at a local movie theater, and I said sure.
There I am listening to Mr. Scott, Tony it turns out, be interviewed. Super interesting. He talked about opinion writing and critique in general as “an exercise in explaining your thought process.” He spoke about the various and particular objectives and tactics one can employ in writing a review. One that stood out to me was the idea that a review might aim to introduce a work to an audience who would not guess the work would be of interest. In addition there was some fascinating discussion of which movies stand the test of time and make you want to watch them again. It was interesting to hear about movies that were audience and critical favorites that just faded away and those that were panned in their day, yet are now considered classics. It was totally energizing. I scribbled notes on whatever paper I could find in my purse. Then, I thought about which ideas I could use for my class.
The next day I combined part of an old idea from 5th grade with some A. O. Scott inspiration and some feedback from another colleague; I had a plan. (Once again, I would like to say how much I value talking to my colleagues and getting to bounce ideas off them. I do not know if they appreciate my bounciness, but I love it.) I decided that I wanted the students to consider evaluating the books we have read in comparison to each other across several categories. So, I made 3 groups; each group had someone who had read each book. Then I finalized my five categories: complex characters, quality writing, read again, effective message (we are reading YA literature so message is big), combination of narrative structure and story.
Here is my very quickly written description:
For this task, your group will determine the winner and runners-up (book or character) in each category. So you need a 1st, 2nd, 3rd place finisher. Your group should first review each book across each category. Not all group members will have read all the books, but each group should have someone who read each book. In order to make your choices, you will need to decide how you will define the categories. Then, apply that definition to the books to determine the winner and runners-up.
In class, a representative from your group will present your decision and explain the group’s reasoning. Quotations or page/chapter references are expected. Each group member must present at least one category. We will then evaluate the choices and the reasoning behind the choices. The group should also have a visual to support the decision. There may be prizes.
I set the groups working, “working” maybe. Once again, I cannot claim that everyone was engaged, but as I went from group to group, there was solid conversation comparing the books, which was what I wanted to happen. This review and comparison work was certainly more significant work and better at addressing the essential questions of the course than a single book review. Plus, it served as a good lead up to the final writing assignment that will ask them to consider a number of titles. The day before the presentations someone asked what the prizes would be. I may have forgotten about that part, but luckily I had some left over prizes from bribing my personal kids to do things. I brought those in the next day. (I have written before about seniors being like 5th graders. This is true in prize preference too, since I said money was not an option.)
The presentations were totally solid. Sometimes it’s because the individual is good at winging it, but even the wingers had done the prep and were therefore able to be convincing and articulate. I certainly got a better sense of what they were thinking about and the type of considerations they were making than I would have from a book review or even a comparison paper. They do have to write and learn to write effectively, but that is not the only way to present a position. We spent an entire long block and then some to get through everything.
There are definitely tweaks to be made to this. I evaluated on the spot and gave prizes to the entire team of the winning presenter for each category. This added a little tension which was not a bad thing for the group. However, I’d like the students to do more of the evaluating next time. Also, I’d include reflection the next class period to explain what separated good from very good. Mostly it came down to having and applying a specific definition for the category. Everyone had a definition and pretty good reasons why they chose the order they chose, but for some groups either the definition was very bland or they had a definition but then did not use it as their measure against which to determine the winners.
Also, I noticed that most of the winning books were the books that I taught rather than books they read in the literature circle groups. The Phantom Tollbooth was the big winner with one student saying, “it’s basically the perfect book.” So, did I choose the best books to teach myself? Or, did they get a lot less out of the books they read more independently? I have a lot to think about with these two questions before I can answer them.
This is definitely an assessment strategy to keep polishing.