I have two full weeks of classes with my seniors before their IB and AP exams begin, and after a semester of preparing students for those exams using methods I described in January, one of the biggest questions on my mind is this: how can I help students write as sensitively, authentically, wisely, and sophisticatedly in their traditional exam essays as they have in less traditional pieces like prompt books and additional or alternate scenes?
The seniors and I studied four plays this semester, and after each, students selected a writing task from a short menu to serve as their assessment. Over and over, play after play, the trend I observed was that students who had selected the “creative” option (I use this term loosely and reluctantly, since all writing is creating) performed better (and wrote more fluidly) than those who had decided to write a more traditional essay in the style of our exams.
I could make a few observations and hypotheses about this situation on my own, most notably that (a) Rebekah and Alison are brilliant and deserve more applause for their efforts to help the rest of us understand how authentic writing tasks and studies of analysis “in the wild” yield more authentic thinking and writing (b) it’s just a month or so until the seniors graduate, and they are already moving on to what comes next, and (c) it’s always tougher for me to offer constructive criticism about a student’s work of heart.
But a few of the extra scenes missed the mark in mood or tone or left out crucial details, so students’ additional scenes really were an honest representation of what they knew and understood (or didn’t) about our plays. And students’ “director’s note” rationales for the additional or alternate scenes showed me that they could analyze the effects of their choices, too. Take, for example, this reflection from Paula about her additional scene for Fences:
Troy was a catalyst for every character’s growth in this play, but an inhibitor to himself. I intended to convey [this] through this references [to] death, baseball, and how he treats/addresses Rose. I used the baseball reference in line “But he ain’t ready yet. I got two strikes, and he waiting for me to hit a third. No sir, this one going out with loaded bases” to continue this baseball motif.
What, then, caused students to write clunky, forced, and meandering essays? Why was it so obvious to this reader that they had written one sort of assignment out of passion and interest and another because they had to? Hadn’t our mentor text studies of New York Times and Vulture reviews and analyses shown them that there was still room for voice and variety in an essay?
This week, I posed all of those questions to my seniors. I needed to know if there was still a chance to course correct, to bring these seniors with nearly both feet out the door back to the threshold and encourage them to leave a legacy. Among their responses:
- There doesn’t appear to be a “wrong” answer when writing a new scene for a play
- A comparative essay in response to a prompt seems to have tougher expectations and parameters (I’d argue that writing a nuanced new scene is a LOT harder!)
- When they write analysis in the exam style, the voice doesn’t feel like their own
- Writing a new scene or imagining they are directing a scene lets them spend more time with the characters and moments they care about
- When they read our texts, they can see all that they ought to write about but are paralyzed by the quantity of what they notice and fear leaving something out
And then the response that no one said but was pretty palpable: they are running out of steam and making choices about which classes are priorities. English class sometimes falls outside of that priority umbrella.
As I listened to my seniors, I realized that some of our troubles result from false perceptions, ones that I’ll definitely need to work harder next year to change. Notice how students said that they perceived one task as letting them spend time with people and ideas they cared about and another barring them from what mattered to them? How one task gave them a voice while another didn’t seem to? That they felt like essays could simply be right or wrong?
And so the questions that will guide our review weeks (and a lot of my summertime planning) were born:
- How can I demonstrate that writing a commentary or comparative analysis isn’t about right and wrong but rather appreciating a writer’s choices and connecting with other readers?
- How can I help students approach their exam essays not as a means to an end but rather works of heart that will be read by other humans and can matter just as much and be just as passionately composed as their scenes or poems or short stories?
- How can I keep these seniors from sliding for just a few more weeks?
- How should I adjust my feedback to prevent future students from perceiving essays as so limiting?
I decided to start with motivation. I asked students to reflect for a few moments on the following questions:
- What work (in or out of school) have you been most proud of?
- Why are you proud that work?
- What motivated you to take up that task? What resources helped you to finish it?
The seniors noted that competition, the satisfaction of completing something big, the joy of discovery (and then the pride of being an expert), and the opportunity to learn more about something that interested them motivated them to do their best. In response, rather than filling the two weeks with a series of mock exams like I often have, I’m planning some competitions that pit introductions against one another, brief reflections that ask students about their emotional responses to lines or paragraphs in our “unseen” poems and prose excerpts, and discussions of exam prompts that show students how to lead their responses with their questions, frustrations, and favorite moments in the plays. My hope is that these new approaches will encourage more passionate and authentic writing when exams arrive in early May.
So…have I done (or will I be doing) anything revolutionary? Probably not. Might my reflection today be relevant or useful for any other teacher? I’m not sure (but I thank you for “listening”!). What I do know is this is the time of year when our older students, wearied by the work of four years that brought them to this point and filled with hope (or fear) about what happens next, can be a restless bunch, but they are not a lost cause.
And in our own rush to tie up loose ends and finish the tasks of the year, it can be easy to forget how powerful even the briefest of “check-ups” can be. Your students are still learning. There’s still time to adjust and improve. As teachers, we talk a lot about the value and importance of being reflective practitioners; think of how our students could benefit from entering the next phase of their lives as reflective practitioners, too.
The questions I posed may have confused some of my seniors, but as least they saw me modeling reflection, asking questions of a challenge when I faced it rather than shutting down. And if I can use exam review to remind students that THEY. ARE. WRITERS. and readers are still listening to them–even on the other side of a timed essay test–then that’s a conversation worth having.
How do you use the last weeks of your classes effectively? Have any cure-alls for the “senior slide”? Share your ideas (and your best answers to some of the many questions I’ve asked above!) in the comments below or on Twitter @MsJochman.