Assessment Dilemmas

Some aspects of professional life are obvious. For instance, most teachers prefer to read essays as they are submitted, particularly if they are being written in class as part of a district assessment. Most of the teachers I know do not embrace inactivity; they want to do something.  They want to work with students to help them develop their ideas, talk through strategies.  That’s not a secret. On the other hand, there are practical matters at work in this scenario. Language arts teachers often live by this rule because of the sheer number of pieces of writing they must read and respond to.

All 82 of my language arts students wrote in-class essays yesterday as part of a district-mandated assessment. Unlike PARCC, opting out is not an option. If I stayed faithful to that cardinal rule of language arts teachers and graded each essay as it was submitted, I would have made a serious dent in my weekend workload. However, I didn’t grade a single essay.

Watching my students write inspired me want to write. But I wasn’t inspired to write glorious fictional prose, the kind that moves readers emotionally. Instead, I was inspired to write about what my students must endure in response to today’s comprehensive and ubiquitous assessment culture. I was also moved because I don’t believe many outside of education – spouses not included – understand exactly what occurs in a language arts classroom, or any other classroom for that matter. Today’s educational environment is very different from the schoolrooms of years past, when many of my contemporaries sat in these same student desks.

When I tell people I’ve just met I’m an eighth grade language arts teacher, the typical response is, “Bless you. I could never do that.” Yet, the teaching profession – or vocation, depending how you feel about it – is often misunderstood. This reaction, and other similar reactions, I believe, are born from a fear of teens and tweens. Teens and tweens are actually some of the most authentic and interesting people to work with. Observing them is often the best part of my day. And I get to observe them in language arts on many more levels than most other teachers. My observations are made during whole-class discussions, individual reading and writing conferences, reading what they’ve written, peeking at them while they read, listening to their conversations, and watching their interactions during group projects. A language arts classroom is sort of like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, just with tamer subjects.

The essay my students wrote yesterday is a complicated matter.  After reading and annotating Larry Fondation’s short story Deportation at Breakfast and Sherman Alexie’s poem The Limited, students were invited to write an essay comparing how each author develops their perspective and what effect each text is intended to have on the reader. Students were required to use evidence from both texts to help develop their responses. Just an essay, right?

If you break this task into its more manageable, teachable pieces, it’s quite comprehensive; some would even go so far as to call it “a load.” And it all takes place over 82 minutes, the time frame of a two-class period language arts block.  Unfortunately, only one of my language arts blocks occurs during back-to-back periods, so the other two blocks, one of which I share with another teacher, are broken up by multiple class periods. Some might look upon this favorably – an advantageous break, during which students could reflect on both stories and the similarities or differences they share. There’s only one problem. These students must attend other classes during those non-language arts periods, during which they will engage in other work and probably not have the time to reflect on what they are required to finish during their designated second half of the language arts block. That’s the reality. Many of these students, in all likelihood, had to use a portion of their second period to reacquaint themselves with what they had written, wasting precious writing time.

While comparing and contrasting the poem to the short story, students had to determine to what extent each author intentionally used a fairly substantial number of literary elements similarly or differently as they revealed their perspective on taking a stand.  On first glance, poems and short stories use word choice differently. It could be argued that a poem places more emphasis on word choice, particularly figurative language, since poems often treat words more economically.

Students were also encouraged, as I mentioned earlier, to annotate, or think through each text in the margins. Yet many see annotation (heavy sigh, exaggerated shoulder slump) as a punitive measure, rather than a beneficial strategy to make sense of their thoughts as they read. To achieve success, students must also solidly grasp the many of the literary elements an author might intentionally use (imagery, figurative language, tone, characterization, narrative point-of-view, theme (and the issues and topics that are used to construct it), conflict, setting, etc.) that contribute to perspective. Again, the moving parts are many.

All of this analysis must be coherently written in an essay. In order for success to occur, students must have a solid grasp of the role organizational structure and sentence variety play in conveying their thoughts in a cohesive manner; they must also be familiar with how to thoughtfully introduce their position while stating a claim and providing context for the reader. After making the introduction, the challenge becomes compartmentalizing evidence into supporting paragraphs that begin with a topic sentence, provide the context of the evidence about to be used, and explain, thoroughly, how that evidence supports their claim. The conclusion, possibly the scariest of all essay goblins, lays in wait. Should I just restate my introduction? Thinks each writer. Or, should I attempt to present something thoughtful about the topic the reader can ponder over the course of the next many days? The latter, generally, loses because writers are so tired by this point as the clock continues to tick, stomachs begin to growl, and grey matter begins to throb.

If you are not familiar, Deportation at Breakfast is told from the first-person perspective of a man looking for breakfast. He comes upon Javier’s diner, finds it clean and attractive, and is enticed by the reasonable prices. After sitting at the counter, taking his first sips of coffee, ordering his breakfast, and scanning the newspaper, the “authorities” enter the restaurant and escort Javier out. He does not resist.  It’s the last we hear of Javier. Seconds later, the protagonist wonders what will become of his breakfast (and the breakfasts of other customers). Javier was the lone employee. Will the food burn? Our protagonist is faced with a challenge.

Rather than pay any attention to Javier’s fate, the protagonist answers the call, hops the counter, and continues Javier’s work.  Other customers enter, so he takes care of them.  The story soon ends with the protagonist thinking…

Maybe I’d take out a help-wanted ad in the paper tomorrow. I had never been in the restaurant business. There was no way I could run this place alone.

Javier is not even a distant memory. He’s completely forgotten by our protagonist (and the remaining customers) after an episode that many of us would have talked about for days on end.

Sadly, most of my students felt the story was about stepping in when called to duty.  After all…someone had to make breakfast, right?



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