Friday, September 29, 2017

What Makes a Great Assessment?

Every writer should have the opportunity to experience an audience this engaged with her writing.

I enjoyed being negative and satirical for once (in a piece of writing). I think it was the most enjoyable piece I’ve ever written. It was so fun and interesting to write and think about. —11th grader

I just read what may be the best assessment I’ve ever designed. (It's been three years in the evolution.) As the culminating project for The Screwtape Letters, 11th grade AP Language and Composition students write their own satires—a new letter from Screwtape, a senior devil with a desk job, to his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter in the field. Except this time Wormwood’s “patient” is a student at our school.

I love it because the students enjoy writing and sharing it, I enjoy reading it, and it demonstrates thorough mastery of our objectives: understanding the book’s content, using the tools of satire, and applying an insight into human nature (one of Lewis’s or a similar personal insight) to a modern situation. In addition, plagiarism is impossible and everyone scores well. What’s more, with my added emphasis this year on model sentences (see last week’s blog), I saw students implementing those patterns of varying sentence lengths and building sentences with introductory appositives. Finally, I didn’t forget to allow students to reflect on their writing.  

The assessment practically graded itself when I asked the students to highlight one place where they had demonstrated understanding of the book, one place where they had used satire, and one place where they had applied an insight into human nature—and explain how each passage did that.

I also asked them to highlight and explain one thing they had done well, taken a risk on, or worked hard on, and to respond to the question, “What’s one thing you learned about writing or life in the process of producing this piece?” Here are some of their answers:
  • I learned that humans are easy to complain about because we are so far from perfect. Our lives are pretty hilarious, filled with tons of follies. I liked reflecting on life.
  • It is a lot easier to write in the style of another author than to work on your own, almost like you have a fallback when you don’t know what to say next.
  • Writing satire is extremely difficult because I feel like it was easy to get carried away and just speak pessimistically.
  • I didn’t feel  comfortable writing about human deficiencies with a satirical effect. Doesn’t really work with my style of writing.
  • I learned that my understanding of satire was rockier than I had previously thought. I’ve been told the definition many times, yet I still struggle to identify it.
  • I honestly really enjoyed trying to make my writing sound like Screwtape’s while reading the book and thought of a low, deep British accent and it really helped me when writing to imitate C.S. Lewis’s style.

I’m looking forward to following up on some of these comments with a discussion of the role of imitating masters’ style as an apprentice learns the craft and develops her own style, and a discussion of discovering misunderstandings and strengths.

In their letters, students displayed creative, satirical insight into the issues that beset them as modern adolescents: 
  • Gossip grows the lack of compassion in a human….Keep her thinking she must have the details of everyone else’s life in order to know how much better she’s doing. 
  • You could give him what he wants, then yank it away from him, leaving him even more desperate, perpetuating the cycle. Alternatively you may go the route of dropping the weighty realization that what he now has has not made him any more popular, nor any happier, hence driving into his head the idea that he is simply too broken to ever be fixed.
  • I see that you’ve shone through her eyes the most beautiful of women with the most unnatural bodies, which delightfully increases the everlasting jealousy gnawing on her insides.
  • Have your patient…dive into this [internet] world of information to the point where he drowns in it. Have him go to CNN, Facebook, Buzzfeed, and keep him sandwiched between all of those websites that keep him on the internet.

Students also applied the practice with mentor sentences. Here are a couple examples of students using introductory appositive phrases (with anaphora and parallelism!):
  • The quick judgement of everyone they see, the quick self-assessment that soon follows, the quick impulse to speak one’s mind—all of which are great for us.
  • Her embarrassment about her appearance, her jealousy of what others have or look like, her low self-esteem, her degradation of herself—all of which you should take into consideration in how to bring her home to us.

Finally, I learned that I might want to more clearly target allusion as one of Lewis’s tools of satire because two students caught my attention with how effectively they did it:
  • Do not take this, my lovely and shortsighted nephew, as a direction to bankrupt the poor patient…for we who have studied here long enough are well aware of the Enemy’s adage about rich men and camels. 
  • …[About hurting people:] It all falls under the category of vandalizing the Enemy’s image. Believe it or not, the enemy considers each individual a temple. A temple! How ridiculous can He be?…Our researchers have tried, and tried, and tried again to find out the relationship between such buildings and humans, but to no avail. It’s simply fictional and makes no sense.

The best assessments are ones that are challenging yet enjoyable, allow choice, and require students demonstrate learning, as well as drive learning in the process. Oh, and ones that teachers can learn from, too!

What’s one of your favorite assessments?

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