Posts Tagged ‘creative assessment’

So, I’ve been thinking about the plans my students presented before spring break. The project was a YA book plan, either historical fiction or fantasy, depending on the genre the students in the group had been reading.

Last year, the entire class was reading various fantasy books and everyone, either in a group or alone, created a plan for a fantasy book. (I wrote about it last year, including the project description.) It was very successful in that students did good work, did not hate the project, were creative and collaborative, and I got new information about their interests and abilities.

This year, I have a lot of students who like historical fiction and/or don’t particularly like fantasy. So, I quickly created a historical fiction unit as an option to the fantasy unit. Historical fiction worked for a similar book concept final project which meant I could keep my successful project by making a few simple tweaks. (Fantasy project description. Historical fiction project description.)

Students knew about the project from the beginning of the unit. Having fantasy and historical fiction units going on simultaneously does not seem like an obvious pairing. As they read and talked about various books, I frequently connected at least part of our discussion to their goal of a new book project. Not only did that remind students of the upcoming tasks, but provided a unifying element in what might otherwise be a pretty random situation. For example, after each group’s first reading assignment, we looked at beginnings. I did a little talking about options writers have for beginnings, then groups examined the way their writer and text started, talked about the benefits and potential drawbacks, and finally, students wrote individually on a forum about what they were thinking about in terms of a beginning strategy for the book they would plan.

Once we got to the project, again the students really came through. This is work they are doing the week before spring break, not a time known for high-level work. Students had a short amount of time. Although they were to come in with some basic ideas on Monday, they basically started work on that Monday, had class Monday and Tuesday (long block of 65 minutes), homework time, and presented on either Wednesday or Thursday (the Thursday groups each had someone missing on Monday or Tuesday). With only four groups (3 historical fiction, 1 fantasy) I could spend quality time with each group asking questions, pushing them to consider options etc. On Monday, I was worried. They had ideas but were pretty far from solidifying anything. On Tuesday, they were significantly farther along. With a long class period that day, I was also able to get around to each group twice. It was interesting to see how various ideas changed and what had either fallen by the wayside or moved to the front.

It was clear from the final presentations that the groups had thought a lot about the structures of the books we have read over the course of the semester, beyond this unit. (Narrative structure has been an ongoing topic of discussion.) All groups made very particular choices about format and structure that they explained in terms of their responses to other works they read earlier in the semester. Students did solid research for the historical fiction stories. They thought about how they would incorporate enough of the necessary history into the story without sounding like a textbook. The fantasy group had animal characters and made interesting choices about character traits and lessons learned. In addition, each group had a presentation that included images to help us imagine the setting or characters. A few of them were very creative visually.

I was thrilled.

And, I was worried that maybe I was just being the proud teacher and excited over mediocre work done by students I love. It’s sometimes easy for me to spread affection over work like jelly, allowing it to cover burnt toast. I know this about myself. However, I invited another teacher to the presentations (The year before I was worried students wouldn’t take the assignment seriously and had another teacher there for the serious factor. This group did not need that, but whenever there is a performance/presentation, I think it’s a great idea to have outside eyes and ears for celebratory or seriousness reasons.) Then, I showed the final products to a real, live YA author. While neither of these ladies thought my students should give up their day jobs of being high school students, they both agreed that my students’ work was indeed quality stuff.

Whew.

What a great way to head off to spring break.

Here are a few slides from the presentations:

This book plan combines Ann Frank’s diary with a boy in a detention center. The boy has to read about Ann Frank and write in response to her entries. His initials are also AF, which I thought was a great little twist. This is an example of some sample text that might be in their book.

 

This book concept focusses on 9-11. There are four main characters who do not all connect to each other. At the end, they are all at the 9-11 memorial at exactly the same time. This is what each a shared chapter/passage.

 

More sample text. This concept has the story set in WWII, but in North Africa. There are two main characters, one older, one younger. The plan is for the younger medic to tell the story, but have the older soldier as a friend/mentor and information/history source.

 

Finally, the fantasy story. This story is about a naked mole rat who wants to see “above” and light and colors. The background on the slide is a maze of tunnels.

So, I’ve been thinking about reflection. Again. Always. It is going to be a theme for the year at my school.

See, how that is working out? I slowly got more people on board, kept talking about how it was connected to whatever anyone was talking about. . .

Anyway, I had planned to start off with some get to know you/reflection form with my senior class. However, with this and that getting in the way, my questionnaire was incomplete and I was about to scrap it. Then, I ran into a colleague who was also asking her class some basic questions, and I was reinspired. I’m so glad I was.

I thought about what I would really need to know and what would be helpful for my students to think about. I also thought about those posts going around the interwebs at the moment about asking students what they wish their teacher knew about them. Here’s what I came up with.

 

Nothing fancy, but seemed reasonable.

Once again, I am so glad I asked. How often will I say/write this before I stop being amazed? Hard to say.

I learned lots of interesting information. Several students noted that they are visual learners. Right away I altered the product options for the first assignment. Rather than everyone having to make a rubric, which is not all that interesting visually, I made a flow chart/infographic an option as well. My goal for the work is for students to consider the characteristics they do and do not appreciate in ‘good reads’ and then to create a tool to use in measuring these same qualities.I’m looking for sophisticated comparison and evaluation along several characteristics. A rubric will work, but honestly it’s not the only thing that will work. And, rubric making is not the skill I am looking to improve so no one has to do that for me to get the information I want. A well done if-this-then-that chart with plenty of options and alternative routes will show me just as much of the student’s thought process and let me evaluate the complexity of their evaluation just as well.

The added bonus of giving additional product options is that if one particular product is more to a student’s liking, then I am more likely to get better work and work that more accurately demonstrates the student’s understanding. What teacher wants to spend time evaluating something that isn’t a good representation of a student’s ability or knowledge? Not this teacher.

I haven’t seen the products yet. And, I may need to give a little class time for tweaking as I did not do much explaining of the assignment, although it was described on the assignment sheet. (How much should I have to explain an assignment such as this to seniors, if I linked to examples of rubrics? A post for another time.) However, I am going to put this in the win category in terms of using student feedback to inform my teaching. I hope the products are good too.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

Monsters and ninjas for prizes

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.

My Reflections:

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 groupsThe 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.

Public domain image from PIxabay.com

Public domain image from PIxabay.com

So, I’ve been thinking about my senior English elective, YA Literature, and what is interesting and engaging for the students. I don’t mind working, but I do mind doing all the work and harassing students to do their part of the work.

In this unit we read The Phantom Tollbooth all together (and I did a really good job with it, IMHO), and then the students went to their literature circles reading either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The discussions that the groups managed to have independently were a very mixed bag. That combined with some serious senior-itis lead to a rather disappointing end to the week. When I planned out my assessments for the semester, I had imagined a comparison paper at this point. However, as the time got closer to assigning it, I got more and more convinced that a paper was not the thing that would actually produce good thinking and a solid product. Several students happened to have mentioned presentations over the course of the semester, and I had skipped a planned presentation earlier in the semester, so I decided to think about changing my assessment to some sort of presentation.

I still wanted to maintain the goal of having students think about this type of story. We compared general plots arcs of all three books, in addition to some other similar stories that they knew, and I wanted them to wrestle with both the similarities of the big events and the wild variety in the specifics. I also realized that with my podcasting experiment not working as well as I had hoped, I could use another creative assignment. So, I put all that together and came up with an assignment that required thinking (always good), involved presentation (which the students need to practice) and was creative.

The Remix/Remake/Create project was born. Here are the particulars, as I shared with my students:

You have now read The Phantom Tollbooth and either Haroun and the Sea of Stories or The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her own Making. You may also be familiar with the Narnia series, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, or the Wizard of Oz.

Think about the common characteristics of these adventure tales. You will plan and present a concept for a new book in this genre. Your concept must include information about the following:

Title: title and brief plot outline. No need for a summary of all the events, but a basic outline or flowchart of events is fine.

Cover or interior image: design either a cover or image for a chapter heading or major event

Protagonist: some description of this character and background; major character traits; ways these traits will be demonstrated not just stated.

Companion(s): who will travel with the protagonist; what do we know about this character; what traits does he/she bring that are valuable and challenging; is this character from the world of the character or the new fantasy world

Fantasy world: in what sort of place does the adventure take place; in what key ways is it both similar to and different from home; who is in charge; what sort of people/animals will our protagonist meet; how is this place connected to or known, or not, by others in the real world

Mission: what brings our protagonist to this new land; what adventures do you imagine once he/she arrives

Lessons to learn: what key lessons about life; about being an adult; about being a child; about living a meaningful, purposeful, true life will the character learn

Use of Language: what symbolism might you employ; consider the literal and nonliteral use of words; pay attention to the names of people and places.

Optional-Societal issues: will your book idea be addressing any particular societal concerns of the day?

Deliverables:

Presentation (10 minutes) that clearly and enthusiastically shares your vision for this story concept. This should include the following:

    • outlines of ideas about the topics above
    • Several paragraphs of sample text from a few key points in your proposed book: first paragraph and two consecutive paragraphs from later in the story.
    • Note: Do NOT make a Powerpoint with all the information above and simply read from it. This will be beyond boring no matter how interesting your ideas are. You should be necessary to your presentation. You must present. What and how you present is up to you.
  • Brief written explanation of your inspirations for the decisions you have made. How have you taken ideas from the books you have read and reworked them, remixed them, to create something unique and new. This should include your target audience and reasoning behind your choice. Please put your concept in the context of other works. (~600 words)

In addition, I made this evaluation form that the students and I filled out after each presentation. I shared this with them in advance.

I explained the assignment on a Friday, and the presentations were the next Wednesday and Thursday. Classtime on both Monday and Tuesday was devoted to working on the project. I checked in and had good conversations with each group each day.

What I noticed right away was the energy level and engagement in the room. This was the 4-day week (with 4 Spirit dress days!) before Spring Break, not traditionally a time of great seriousness. People were talking about their ideas immediately. And because the students had ideas, my conversations with them could be so much more specific and individualized. I wasn’t giving vague encouragement, I was able to have particular discussions about the details of the project:

  • Was a storyline veering too far into PG-13/ R rating when I had set PG (maybe PG-13) as the upper limit?
  • Yes, I was familiar with Captain Underpants and could see the appeal of bathroom humor for a certain demographic, but were there lessons to be learned?
  • How much background knowledge of today’s rappers was necessary to understand this storyline? Would it be dated instantly?
  • Yes, I get the humor in the name of the king, will other characters’ names also have double meanings?
  • Has the group thought about whether the protagonist can return to this fantasy land?

I also wanted to be sure that the presentation days felt a little different and more serious, even if students were in odd attire (Spirit Week!). In a bold move, I invited the English department chairperson before I even introduced the project to my students. I also invited the Head of Upper School, who turned out to be busy. On the days of the presentation, I rearranged the room into 2 rows of tables for those listening and a table for the presenters at the front. I am a big believer in the importance of room resign to signal what is expected. Presenters could project their presentations and speak from the table or stand. Each day there were 3 presentations (10 minutes each).

While not all groups came up with books that would be snapped up by publishers, every group had a solid plan and outline. Several of the ideas were quite complex and well-fleshed out. The students thought about the intended audience and wanted to balance life lessons with a light touch. The assignment accomplished by three stated goals of requiring serious thought, including presentation skills, and stressing creativity. All that during the week before Spring Break. There’s room for improvement, but this assessment is a keeper.