Writing Our Way In Reader Mail: Creating Authentic Assessments

Moving Writers' Top Ten

As is our habit, we are taking the summer away from the blog to read, write, and recharge. We’ll be back in late August with new content, but for the summer, let’s take a journey down memory lane as we visit our ten most-read posts from the previous school year! 

Yesterday, Rebekah posted about assessment in the writing workshop, and her brilliant suggestions led me to think about some reader mail I received last fall. A few months ago, reader Dawn shared: I have struggled with developing authentic writing assignments that students actually care about, and I have also struggled with formative writing assignments and not just springing a summative assessment on students from out-of-the-blue.

I think a lot of us can say, “I’ve been there, Dawn!” Maybe we’ve created writing assessments that felt authentic to us but seemed like a chore to students; or perhaps the writing task we’d carefully and clearly contemplated for weeks in our teacher brains never made it out of our mouths to students’ ears; or maybe we reached the time for a summative task and realized, as our stomachs dropped to our feet, that we hadn’t really given students a chance to practice the skills they would need for the summative assignment. Been there. Done that.

I still make plenty of mistakes when it comes to designing assessments or using them effectively, but over time I have developed a few guidelines for creating assessments that engage students and lead to more learning and more focused teaching. They work together as pairs of do’s and don’ts:

  • Don’t assign for assigning’s sake; plan with the end in mind
  • Don’t assess with what already exists; be open to epiphanies and experiments
  • Don’t feel the need to put everything in the gradebook; create opportunities to simply listen to students

Don’t assign for assigning’s sake…

For many of us, our literature classes in high school or college may have followed a “read a text, write a paper; read a text, write a paper” format. In some cases, the program we’re teaching in might still encourage this rhythm.

While it’s important to assess what students have understood about a text or how they interpret it,  it’s also important for us to ask ourselves what exactly a summative assessment is looking for and what format might best serve that knowledge or skill.

…Do plan with the end in mind

So, as Allison demonstrates in “Moving Writers Plans a Lesson,” we need to think about what we want students to do NOW with their knowledge of a text as well as what we hope they’ll be able to do in the future. Students care about learning; they’ll care about an assessment when they can clearly understand how it’s helping them learn.

Create an assessment that’s looking for a skill rather than particular content knowledge. Perhaps a study of analyzing dialogue and its effects in drama ends in a mash-up challenge where students explain how and why they constructed a conversation between characters in two different plays (rather than analyzing scenes that already exist). Or a detailed study of one poet’s catalogue culminates in a student-curated anthology of the poet’s work. Once you know where a unit is headed, you can incorporate partial drafts or other formative assessments that practice similar skills.


Don’t assign what already exists…

When it’s time to start writing about what we’ve read, I will often say, “I’m not interested in what the internet has to say about this work; I’m interested in what YOU have to say.” When students feel pressured to say or understand the “right” thing, it only takes a click to find the answers they might need. Critical thinking disappears and regurgitation ensues.

So we have to move beyond assignments that ask students to say or write what can already be found online. Does the world need another theme paper on any work of literature? I think not. Instead, you could take a cue from educational technology expert Alan November and ask students to evaluate two existing online papers and argue which one is better. Or follow the advice of a National Writing Project workshop leader and change the mode of a traditional assignment.

For example, one skill that my freshmen need to practice during our Catcher in the Rye study is character analysis. Rather than writing a by-the-numbers analysis of Holden, students will write newspaper or magazine-style profiles of Holden, treating the novel like an interview they conducted as they followed Holden to his favorite New York haunts. When my students tried writing profiles in the fall, they struggled, so this assignment is an opportunity to revisit skills that still need strengthening.

…Do leave room for experiments and epiphanies

The profile of Holden was a “lightning bolt” moment that emerged from students’ questions and observations. Since we started reading the book, students have been really curious about who is listening to Holden tell his story. And students have repeated some of Holden’s quotes like sound bites on a social media loop. Profiles that students wrote previously read like biographies, since they were constructed from secondary research. Catcher is a primary source about Holden, a first-person narrative with plenty of fodder for an intimate profile of its lead. An assessment of students’ analytical skills had always been in the plan for our Catcher in the Rye unit, but the profile format will allow for so much more authenticity and voice; students won’t have to write themselves out of this piece. 

Don’t feel pressured to record every assessment; create opportunities to listen to students

Our new approach to character analysis wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t taken the time to listen to my students through class discussions and quick “what’s your first impression of this novel” responses on index cards.These “what are you thinking right now” formative assessments have been essential to planning summative assessments. They can take as little as five minutes (an index card-sized first impression of a new text) or as long as a class period (a reflection on the last book, movie, song, or television show that moved a student). If your school requires a record of every assessment, check these assignments in as completion grades and then read them for ideas. And if records aren’t required? Just read them, use them as a conversation on paper, and move on. Note patterns (Are students asking similar questions about your new work? Have the managed to analyze their favorite show by explaining what moves them about its latest episode?) and frequently asked questions. Write down the questions that students’ reflections prompt for you, and share those questions or ideas with students in your feedback. Students could collect all of their reflections and choose a favorite to expand into a longer piece of writing for a summative assessment. Perhaps the patterns you notice in students’ questions become the foundation for a series of open-ended prompts that students will answer.

Or, if you teach a class with an external assessment, like IB’s exams, perhaps you review the rubric for those spring exams and develop an assessment with students. This is what I plan to do with my seniors (and I’m telling you my plan, dear readers, so that I hold myself to it!)

In early January, as I listened to those seniors take their oral exams, I marveled at how confidently they could speak about the literature we had studied and how authentic their responses to the reading were. I kept thinking about their last essays and how hollow or lifeless so many of the pieces had sounded. The students in front of me had so many good things to say about our reading; I just hadn’t managed to exercise all of that potential on paper. So I’m going to try now. After we study the rubric for the IB exams together, I will ask students to propose new summative assessments that will measure the skills we’re meant to be practicing this semester.

Incorporating student-generated formative and summative assessments requires a lot of trust and flexibility, but if you create a classroom culture where students know they are trusted and are responsible for their learning, then they are bound to develop assessments they care about and will be excited to complete.

So, Dawn and readers, I’m not quite sure I’ve responded to the quandary that started this post, but I hope I’ve offered some new suggestions for designing assessment. Or perhaps this post gave you the permission you need to step outside the box and try something a little risky. I’ll keep you posted on my seniors’ self-designed assessments, and I look forward to answering more of your questions in future posts. Please fill out the survey below or reaching out on Twitter @MsJochman to let me know where you’d like us to Write Our Way In next.

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