Well, that didn’t go as I’d hoped.
Instead of writing a final (that they’d hate to take and I’d hate to grade), I assigned both of my CHS English classes the twin tasks of creating a portfolio of their work and of coming up with some way of working together on a presentation that would prove to me that they learned something this year.
The portfolio first: it was to consist of three items: 1. a piece of writing they did early in the semester which, when they did it, seemed good at the time but now, after they’ve had substantial thinking practice, seems unfinished or immature 2. a piece of writing that they really nailed – something that shows off their capacity to really think, and to really get it right, and 3. a piece of original artwork that represents the growth they’ve done between the two aforementioned pieces of writing, along with a short bit of explanation that interprets the art in those terms.
Let me start by saying that there’s more pink paper in the portfolio than I would have ever dared to imagine there would be. I assembled both classes’ portfolios with those pieces of pink paper right in them, though; I want my boss (and the board) to get an idea of the level of commitment that students routinely put on homework and projects.
Whatever; let’s move on to the presentations, shall we? Here are some things you need to understand before we go much further:
1. The students have been working collaboratively since day one. My teaching style is essentially grounded in the Harkness tradition, and I make my first priority to build a learning community in the classroom. These kids know how to work together.
2. We bill ourselves as an arts-intensive school. These kids all have foundations (and, in some cases, focused training) in music, theatre, and graphic arts. Further, we have resources available so the students can put their talent and training to good use.
3. I gave the students very clear instructions about what I wanted them to accomplish, but I did not tell them how to get there. All semester, the kids have been complaining that they didn’t have enough personal say in how they proved what they know (especially in my classes, they said, where assessments were mostly “I ask the questions, you answer them” sorts of things. We’ll get to why that was in a minute…). Here was their chance to bust out and show me what they’ve got.
4. Not only were they given creative freedom, but they were given ample time to produce their work. They had every class period (1.5 hours) since last Wednesday – and this weekend – to put something together and make it audience-ready.
5. I have taught them something. LOTS of somethings, in fact; I have pushed and challenged and encouraged and driven these kids well past all of their personal boundaries, and I’ve seen evidence in every stinking one of them that the time we spent together had a positive impact on their capacity as learners.
Now, having said all of that, I’ve got to tell you that I was profoundly disappointed in the ways my classes chose to demonstrate their growth as learners over the semester. Profoundly disappointed.
My I/II class decided to put on trial a number of the characters from the books we read. Jem Finch, Ebeneezer Scrooge, and Leisel Meminger were brought to trial for various “crimes,” and supporting characters in their books were brought in to testify. In their script, the kids included references to elements of fiction and allusions to some of my more oft-repeated points – along with a fair bit of funniness.
My III/IV kids decided to compose a song about our English class set to the tune of “Oklahoma.” In it, they touched on some of the more relevant points of the pieces we read and they, too, included a fair bit of funniness.
For all of that, though, I am deeply dissatisfied with the presentations the kids put on. They were surface treatments of the courses – both skits had the feel of theatrical trailer rather than critical examination – and the kids didn’t demonstrate, through how they chose to perform, that they really “get” the work that we did. There were no visual components to either production – no one painted or sculpted or drew; there were no poems or dance numbers or vignettes; no one played an instrument (beyond one delightful boy’s interlude with a harmonica) or composed any original music. They didn’t take advantage of the two hours they were allotted for their final exam; both performances were finished in less than five minutes. There were no thoughtful, in-depth, or surprising elements – nothing that happened in either production made me proud of the work that I’ve done with the students. In short, they proved to me (as they proved during the semester in assignments I gave them that had this sort of open-ended, use-your-talents-to-show-me-what-you-know format) that they can’t (or won’t) produce work that is equal to their ability without direct and constant supervision.
I’m in the process of writing my reflection about these disappointing experiences; I’ve complied both classes’ peppered-with-pink portfolios and have copies of both scripts that I’ll submit, along with my responses to them, to Carrie. When I spoke with her this morning about my disillusionment with the students’ work, she commented that while she agrees that they should have been better, they are effective in giving us a feel for where we are right now as a community. If nothing else, she told me, these experiences will serve to show us where we need to focus our attention and energy in terms of teaching the students to translate what they KNOW into what they CAN DO.
I’m thinking, given this experience, that next semester’s kids will get a final exam…