December 15th, 2015
I’ve never really been a fan of exams. I certainly don’t like the standardized kind and I’m not really even a fan of teacher-created tests to show what my students have learned in my class. Have I written and given tests in the last 16 years? Certainly. Have some of those tests helped me to see where students are struggling and where they are excelling? Sure. But most of the time, an exam tells me less than other forms of assessment and, most importantly, it offers little opportunity or enticement for students to reflect on their learning. They take a test, get a score and most of the time move on.
Since I started blogging in my classroom three years ago, I’ve re-imagined what my midterm and final exams look like. If my students are given two un-interrupted hours at the end of each semester to do something meaningful with their learning, I want it to be just that. I don’t want them to take a test and go off to their winter break, never to revisit those questions or ideas again. I want to do something that sticks and that makes them think about what the semester has done for them as learners, as readers and as writers.
So instead of giving my students a test, my classroom turns into a space for sharing and reflecting. I call it a literacy fair and here’s how it works.
First, I team up with a teacher who teaches our freshman study skills course. During the final exam period, he will bring his students to my class. His ninth grade students (my students are juniors) come armed with some questions about what my students have done throughout the year. Some are specific to assignments we’ve done, but most are simple questions asking students to show off their work. They ask my students what they are most proud of writing and why, what they’ve learned as readers and writers this semester, how writing a blog is different than more traditional English assignments. In my classroom, my students set up stations around the room, choosing a spot where they can talk and show off their work on their blog, sometimes opening multiple tabs so that they are ready to speak to the freshman who come to interview them.
Then the chaos ensues. My classroom fills with extra teachers (I also invite the APs, librarians, counselors, other teachers, etc) and 25-30 extra students. But the chaos is magical. I walk around and listen. I listen to my students talk about themselves as writers. I listen to them talk about audience and choices they’ve made with words. I listen to them talk about what they would have done differently and what they mastered. And as they talk, as they focus on all that they’ve read and all that they’ve written, their confidence soars.
When our guests leave after about 20-30 minutes, my students set off to write one more reflection for the semester. I call it Reflection on a semester of reading and writing (you can download and use the PDF). After the conversations, the writing is easy. They’ve already thought about it and now they are ready to put it all down. To make the learning stick.
The other thing that I added this year is the idea of a word cloud. What better way of visualizing what they have done with words this semester. I have them use Tagxedo to create a word cloud from their blog url. Some of them started with the image to help them think even more about their words, and some of them concluded with it as a sort of extra topping for their reflective post. Once I had them add the word clouds, I was curious what my own would look like. And I’d say it’s a pretty accurate depiction of my journey here.
John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.” If this is true, many of our classrooms do not provide enough time for or put enough emphasis on the power of reflection. These days, with the opportunities technology offers us to keep learning all in one place, all my students have to do to begin to reflect is scroll through the pages of words they’ve written and shared this semester. Final exams don’t have to be boring tests that do little more than place undue stress on students. They can be opportunities for real reflection and learning.