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Creating Assignments

This has always been one of my most favorite parts of teaching. It keeps me up at night brainstorming and getting excited about projects. I often use Pinterest for general ideas or inspiration and run with it. But the core of creating assignments comes down to 4 major assessments:
-Essay
-Assessment
-Creation
-Presentation

Why?

I never understood why something like a paper was thought to prove intellect and understanding above a creative project, or even a presentation. Or why a test was seen as superior to a presentation. The point of assessment is to prove understanding and retention. Why then, are some assessments seen as better than others? We know too much about how brains work to believe that a test or an essay are the only way. Some of the most profound assignments I’ve given are creative, and character driven; NOT a test. That is not to say they don’t have their place. Which is why I include all 4 core assignments to my units, and they are equally graded at 100pts. We do straight points, no weights. All assignments not those core 4 are usually 25pts or less.

This allows students who struggle in test taking to crush it in something more out of the box like a creative assignment. It gives the ones who do well with public speaking the chance to show it off, while knowing that a lower grade on an essay won’t destroy them. It allows room for challenge and growth, as well as refining and shining.

Don’t get me wrong, my students get other assignments. As they read their novels they may get study guides, vocab words pulled from the books, character charts, storyboarding/plotting charts, and mini writing assignments. But they are all scored 25pts or less. They’re typically around 15 if I’m honest. It also means I spend a lot more time with the students refining their core assignments. This is done through peer & self editing days, in-depth class discussion, and walking them through some assignments step-by-step, like MLA formatting a doc. I make my students 2 promises:
1. I will ALWAYS give them as many resources as possible to succeed: rubrics, assignment descriptions, external resources like videos, check lists, etc…
2. I will ALWAYS challenge them, but I will never challenge them to failure.

The first thing I do when looking at writing my unit is my 4 core assignments I think things like, “what do I want them to show me they know here?” For one novel I may want them to create a social media page for a character to show me characterization of that character, with examples from other characters in the story. This is AMAZING to do with freshman and Romeo & Juliet by the way. For another, I may want them to show me they understand settings and create some kind of rendering of a scene in a book. I usually give them the option to do something tactile like a diorama or poster, or something digital like pro-create or Minecraft. I had a 4th grader create an ancient civilization in Minecraft for an assignment last year and it was so cool. He was SO PROUD. And he showed me he understood setting: ziggurats, vegetation, public spaces, and more.

For the a presentation, I may want them to give me some historical context. Instead of ME talking at them about background info before we begin a book, it is way more fun for THEM to learn for themselves, and then teach each other. My own Austen/Bronte class just did presentations on topics like the Napoleonic Wars, Regency Culture, Why It’s Called the “Regency,” etc…. We’re now going into reading Pride & Prejudice with a whole lot more cultural understanding and context. In another class, they will be choosing a character to present on with the information: The name of the character, where they’re from, their job, how they interact with others, their general physical features/description, your assessment of the character: choose at least 3 lit crit glasses in which to view your character. Not only do they get a degree of grade for their actual presentation (pace, clarity of voice), and their presentation itself (slides, Prezi, etc), but the CONTENT and INFORMATION tell me they understand characterization; often times better than an essay may.

Sometimes essay prompts are the hardest to come up with. Once in a while a prompt seems to explode from the pages for me. One of our Brave New World prompts is: What does the removal/destruction of family provide society? How does this contradict our creation? Other times I scour the internet (Pinterest) for some prompt inspiration. I like to give students the opportunity to come up with their own prompt, pre-approved by me. One of my most favorite college essays was, “Rise of the Victorian Madwoman.” I passionately wrote that paper and the professor didn’t give me the topic, I came up with it. If my student gets excited or comes up with a prompt that meets what you want them to learn- let them do it!

Formal assessments tend to be the bane of the existence of many. Both for the takers and creators. I find them the easiest since they’re generally so black & white. You either know what the wine-stained rug in Gatsby’s house represents or you don’t. You either know the definition of supercilious or you don’t. I usually chunk my book readings into 4, with 5-8 questions each per reading. If I do 6 reading comprehension questions/reading, that leaves me with 26 floating points. Every novel gets vocab at some point, at least 20 words. I pick 10 to put on the test which takes me to 36. Depending on the novel, I’ll include a few questions about background/historical context. For sake of argument, let’s say 5, for an 41. Then I give them 3 short answer questions, that require a minimum of 3 sentences. That takes me to a beautifully round 50pts. I double it to get their score out of 100.

My favorite part about making unit tests is that when we do class review- I give them every single answer. I reword questions, or give them what is the answer on the test as the question, and the question on the test as the answer. Either way every piece of information is in the review. One time I had a class goof off during review. It was the lowest average I’d ever had on a test. I printed out the review game, gave them their tests back, and had them match the test question to the review question JUST to prove that I had indeed given them every. single. answer.

Every other unit, instead of a whole test, I will split it up into 4 reading quizzes or “quests”- 25 points each. Usually a few multiple choice and 1 short answer. We do not do reviews for them, and they are closed book. But the summation is obviously still the same as the unit test, but a slightly different format. Again, it’s the concept of the “test,” but a little less pressure. It gives the students and myself a bit of a “break” while still working on their test-taking skills.

Why use this recipe of assessments in your class?

1. You can grade everything on a rubric. I have a basic rubric for all 4 assessments, and then I manipulate it as needed for individual assignments and classes. Providing the rubric for students lets them know your exact expectations before hand, and makes grading easy for you in that it’s not arbitrary. Along with my rubrics I always provide additional notes/feedback so they’re getting more than circled numbers.

2. Variety makes class more fun for everyone. No matter what subject you’re teaching, yes, even math, there is room for more than tests to be your only mode of assessment. It is more engaging for your students and it’s more engaging for you as a teacher. Just like your students, there are assignments that you will shine at creating and that enthusiasm will show.

3. Your students get to work on multiple skills. As I explained above, not everyone is a great test taker. Test anxiety is real. 4 core assessments means that if a student doesn’t do well on a test their grade isn’t destroyed, and they go into the assessment with less stress. Their whole grade isn’t dependent on the thing they struggle with. Presentations are an art form. Public speaking, pacing, speaking clearly, and even the actual design of slides are all real skills. When students know they have more than tests, I have found they are generally more motivated across assignments. They know it’s safe to struggle and are more likely to take risks, thinking outside of the box.

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