Test What You Teach

I often ask students to create a visual representation of an idea we have been tracking in class. Imagine, I might say, you could take a snapshot of Huck and Jim at three different stages in the novel as a way of illustrating the nature of their relationship. The skill that I want to assess with an assignment like this is the ability to identify defining moments in a novel—moments where something changed, developed, manifested, etc. I am assessing how closely a student has read, but since identifying and discussing defining moments in a text is a focus of many of our classroom conversations, I am also assessing how closely a student has paid attention. If you are paying attention in the novel, you notice when things change; if you are paying attention in class, you recognize the types of changes. But here is what inevitably happens: the students who take good notes and are artistically gifted get A’s.

The problem with this scenario is that I don’t teach students how to take notes, at least not explicitly, and I certainly don’t provide instruction in the visual arts. In other words, I am assessing skills that I don’t teach. I have never developed and presented a lesson on how to represent something visually, I just take it for granted that kids can make posters—as if they are ready to step right out of my classroom and into the art department at a Madison Avenue ad agency.

While this discordance between instruction and assessment is pretty obvious on the “poster projects,” it is more subtly, and more significantly, an issue at stake when it comes to assessing student writing. Assessing student writing can be a little like listening to the radio: we know right away what we like or don’t like, but it can be hard to define that quantitatively. So much of what is on the radio is formulaic and boring, yet familiar and catchy enough to entice the listener to nod along without paying too close attention. Clever students figure this out as quickly as pop-rock bands, and what they produce is equally as inoffensive and shallow. Nice hook, no glaring missteps, predictable transitions, wrapped-up neatly in 300-500 words (or 3-5 minutes for the radio).

It’s easy to reward clever students for doing things well that they can pretty much do on their own. But that isn’t teaching. I remind myself of this when I encounter a student frustrated by a given assignment. What I like to tell that student is that this is supposed to be hard—if it you could do it on your own I wouldn’t bother teaching it. Last year I challenged myself not to assess a given skill until I had demonstrated it myself. This slowed things down, but in all the right ways. It also forced me to reconsider the skills I valued most—since I would have to demonstrate them, I didn’t want to end up giving myself a bunch of busy work.

The skills that emerged as the most valuable transcended the specific text and center around the idea of “joining the conversation.” I stressed that there are conversations going on all around us, conversations about heavy issues like race and gender, and less heavy (but no less contentious) issues like sports and music, and we join these conversations responsibly when we exhibit an awareness of occasion, the speakers involved, their audience and purposes, and the crucial tension of the issue at stake. Authors and artists and musicians and talk radio hosts join these conversations through their respective mediums. Each medium has its own form-governed rules. What is boring and predictable adds nothing to the conversation. The challenge for this year is to teach teenagers how not to be boring and predictable. It’s the same lesson I expect them to teach me.

~Dan P.

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