summary of recent events with high school seniors:
After a month of studying Beowulf, seniors wrote and re-wrote individual essays, based on ideas they themselves generated. They spent about a week identifying, developing and refining those ideas in their essays. They revised their writings with classmates’ feedback, and with mine. Not until then did they submit the essay for formal assessment–i.e., grades. Given the time spent, these grades were entered in the most weighted category of “Major Grade.”
Shortly thereafter they completed a written response to four questions (see below*). I call this exercise a “Regular Reflection,” and students write one after each unit. This is the third time they have done so since we started school in early August. And here is the “high stakes” idea reflected in this post’s title. Though most students completed the reflection in the one class period (50′) made available, they all had submitted this writing by the end of the day, as expected. So, time spent on this exercise equalled less than 20% of that devoted to the revised essay. The score for this Regular Reflection, however, carried the same weight as the essay. It, too, went in the “Major Grade” category.
It feels risky to place both assignments in this category, which means high stakes for me as an educator. The students have less time to produce quality work, without feedback from anyone else, which translates into high stakes for them, also.
Why do this? To represent the high value I place on reflective writing and learning. The student excerpts below** suggest this pedagogical risk is worth taking. These writings offer me and the students valuable insights. I wonder if we could imagine a standardized way to implement high stakes testing like this. Can we scale up such instruments?
*Regular Reflection questions
Subject/Activity: Beowulf & Old English Poetry
Associations (linking new information to existing knowledge)
What did you already know about this subject? What have you learned from our activities? Explain the connection between your previous knowledge and your new understanding.
Patterns (making patterns from these associations)
In considering your new understanding alongside everything we have studied so far this year, what patterns do you see?
Emotions (feelings about the new experience/information)
How do you feel about what we have been studying or doing? Please develop (explain) your response beyond a single statement.
Meaning (establishing personal meaning)
What personal relevance do our studies have for you? Or what personal relevance might they have? If none, please explain that response.
An enriched environment comes from matching teaching practice to nature of how the brain learns. It learns in six ways:
- By associating—e.g., in sensory cortex; it links new information to existing knowledge; it uses power of personal associations (cf. difference between learning as information and as transformation)
- By shaping associations into patterns (sometimes forcing patterns that do not exist?)
- Runs on emotions—limbic system works as a relevance detector
- Mostly beneath the level of awareness
- Learns through the body
- Makes meaning
(personal notes from “Teaching to the Teenage Brain” conference leader, Gessner Geyer, 25 July 2005)
“We have been exposed to unique forms of poetry that I had never encountered before. I have learned to enjoy English class because this is definitely not your average class. We expand upon our thoughts much more than I ever have in any other class, and we explore meanings and learn to understand characters. We also learn why the form of poetry we are studying at the time is written the way it is, and learn to write that way ourselves. As far as Beowulf, I feel knowledgeable now about a story I would have never picked up before. I learned to enjoy the poem . . . I feel much more confident about my understanding of poetry now that I have learned how to dissect poems.” [emphasis added]
” Preliminarily doubtful that I would enjoy Beowulf because of its old age, I astonished myself when I started to become interested in the storyline and characters. Confused when I felt sorry for a demon, I began to almost feel sympathetic for the monsters, especially Grendel’s Mother who suffered great grief after the loss of her son.”
“I see a pattern of exposure to something we may not know much about at all, and then after a brief exposure, explanation of the subject material. We are allowed to explore the material a little on our own and attempt to draw some of our own conclusions before we are taught the material. I like this tactic a lot as it give[s] us students the chance to tackle new material on our own before receiving assistance. This can translate pretty well to the post-school world as we will not always have a teacher their [sic] to help us right away, and we may have to attempt to draw conclusions ourselves.” . . .
“Beginning to reflect on this section of studies, I realize that the impact it may have on me will not be as much related to the content as to how I went about interpreting the content. The paper helped me to look at things I read or study differently. When prompted with a vague [sic] question, you do not respond with a vague response. The point of the ambiguity is to allow you to interpret the question the way you want. It is open ended to allow you to pick a specific point that you are passionate about instead of forcing you to write something you don’t care about. The paper will help me in the future to look at writing prompts a little differently.”
For me, the issue of trust lies at the heart of these conversations. High school students, especially seniors, are thirsty for trust. They want to trust adults in the community, and equally importantly, they want to be trusted. Placing high value on their reflections shows genuine trust. Why not find ways to do this? I was powerfully reminded of this lesson, when I read about a former student who, as a high school senior, asked me to direct the original play he wrote that year. I trusted his talent, responsibility and commitment to creative expression. You just never know, but if you screw your courage to the sticking place . . . .