Learning through Exams: Henry Redbird interviews Mr. Brown

Recently, Henry Redbird sat down with Mr. Brown to ask him about semester exams in high schools.  Lately, students and teachers have been wondering why have exams at all.  In the wake of this wondering, I asked Mr. Brown for his thoughts on the subject.

How long do students spend writing an exam, and how long do you spend reading them?

Most students write the exam in two hours.  Those approved for extended time take either three or four hours, depending on their individual accommodation.  For my part, I typically need twenty-five to thirty hours to read the tests thoughtfully.  I take breaks every few hours, so that I stay fresh and attentive to the nuances of individuals’ performances.

What do you look for in a student’s exam results?

As happens during the semester, a rubric governs my assessment.  The basic rubric expects students to organize and express their ideas clearly, to develop those ideas beyond an initial statement, and to provide compelling evidence from the literary texts.  I use these same criteria for the exam.  To help students grow towards greater mastery of content and skills, I usually publish model responses from their classmates, after the exam period.  People who review these models can see where to strengthen their performance on the next exam.  Rather than showing each student where he or she went wrong with a particular question, an impractical idea given the time I already spend reading exams,  I prefer this  model-method for the type of exams they take in this course.  With this approach, students can make the comparisons themselves.

What did you learn from this most recent set of exams?

Here I need to differentiate between the senior and sophomore tests. In the case of the seniors, I learned several valuable lessons.  First is that the test produced a spectrum of results, which I take as a healthy sign.  Some students rose to the challenge of the questions by carefully expressing original insights.  At the other end, some students had trouble creating coherent responses.  For most of the students in between, the questions pushed them to consider familiar material in new ways.  The senior exam had three sections: poetry, reflections on our Nobel profile project and an essay comparing Beowulf to elements in current or historical events.  The poetry section was fairly straightforward, testing students’ working knowledge of basic poetic terms like metaphor, imagery and alliteration.  In applying such terms to their analysis of an unfamiliar poem, they showed a significant range of competence.  The Nobel section interested me most, both before and after I read the responses.  This section, just like the Nobel project itself, was a new project.  I didn’t know what to expect, but student reflections from the exam demonstrated that many students waded through the project’s early stages, but over time came to appreciate the commitment of their chosen scientist and their own work in revising the profile over and over.  It was fun and gratifying to see the care students took in writing these exam reflections.  In the last section, students rose or fell depending on how well they could sustain an argument with specific references to the text.  Beowulf is an old text, and I enjoyed reading the creative ways people could connect elements of that poem to patterns of human behavior they see in other moments of human history, including today’s world.

As for the sophomores, they also had three sections: poetry, short stories and comparative essay.  I enjoyed reading all three of these sections for different reasons.  What I learned most was the skill with which the sophomores analyzed a short story they had only seen once briefly before the exam.  I was very impressed with the care and insight everyone brought to that writing.  I knew they would do well in this section, but I didn’t expect such vigorous success across the board.  The poetry section involved some original composition, and I learned who was most able to produce original lines on short notice.  I also learned, once again, how central one’s understanding of metaphor is to the study and writing of poetry.  People who struggled with those questions, struggled elsewhere in the poetry section.  Lastly, the essay asked them to compare two unlikely partner pieces: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.  These essays showed me a number of connections I had not considered.  Again, as in other parts of this test and the senior exam, students who had a basketful of details to pull from ended up producing the more engaging arguments.

In short, the exam results taught me new ways of thinking about the literature we have read together.  It also confirmed aspects of most students’ semester performances, while bringing to my attention the tenuous grasp other students have on elements of our studies.  These later lessons will help me sharpen not only future assignments, but also my attention to the assessment of those exercises.  When I read a set of exams, I would like fewer surprises, especially negative ones.

What, if anything, do you plan to do differently in the next set of semester tests?

I am not sure.  I don’t imagine huge changes in my approach because this most recent set taught me what I was hoping it would.  During the several weeks leading up to the exam, I kept re-calibrating the questions based on what students were showing about their levels of understanding.  I like the way the questions eventually fit their readiness.  I like to challenge students just the right amount.  Call it the Goldilocks effect.   Next time, I will use the same process but with different material and a group of students who have grown beyond their current capabilities.

In your experience over the years, how much do semester exams contribute to the overall learning process?

I am not sure what they teach students.  I’d like to understand that part of the equation better.  Exams do teach me something, however–something significant each time.  For example, in the case of sophomores, this past set has revealed weak spots in some students’ understanding that had not registered with me before the exams.  That’s a weak spot of mine.  With this knowledge, as I said earlier, I can sharpen our course activities to build understanding more completely across all students.  I know that over the years my work with students has become more productive because of what I have learned from exams.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Redbird, for bearing with my long-winded answers.  I think about such things quite a bit, and I don’t always know when to stop.  Now looks like a good time.

 

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“No Need for Grades,” a student argues

penStudents in my senior high school class recently had fifteen minutes to write original pamphlets containing statements that would get them expelled from school, if authorities could attribute the writing to them.  This exercise was part of a series that introduced them to aspects of Mary Shelley’s world, before they started reading her novel Frankenstein.  She published this novel when she was just a year older than most of them.  The day of this particular exercise was devoted to Mary Shelley’s husband Percy, who was expelled from Oxford once authorities pinned a pamphlet to him and a friend.  These two young men entitled their pamphlet “The Necessity of Atheism.”

Each of my students folded a piece of printer paper into a 4-by-6-inch pamphlet, which made theirs about the same size as Shelley’s. I thought it was fun that one of my students, who wrote the pamphlet below, echoed Shelley’s wording.  As I later told this student, when I practiced the exercise before assigning it, I  composed a pamphlet called “The Necessity of Grades.”  I intentionally imitated Shelley’s title, whereas this student did so unwittingly with “No Need for Grades”:

“There is a consensus, believed and agreed upon, in America, that the grades you receive in school and the scores you get on tests define your future and how smart you are.  While there are benefits in grading to measure proficiency on a topic, the reality behind grades is that they are unnecessary in defining a person’s intelligence.  The passion and work ethic of a student is what defines them; their willingness to learn and keep learning.  Society should not be based on these numbers.  People who do not score as well automatically have less of a chance at getting a good job or a successful future.  This is why there should not be grades.  Every student should find the subject they [sic] are passionate about and study and eventually go into a profession involving that subject.  This leaves the society and community with knowledgeable laborers.”

If you try this exercise, notice the reactions of students as they write and as they imagine sharing their pamphlets.  Some of my classes freely shared, whereas others barely did.  The exercise worked insofar as several students were excited to consider their own thoughts and wonder about their classmates’.  For the record, nobody was expected to share the writing with anyone else, unless he or she wanted to.  In more than one class, someone asked what Percy Shelley had written.  Curiosity bubbled, and the exercise gave them a taste of radicalism in early nineteenth-century England and Europe.

 

 

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in their hands.student letters

lettersThe letters in the box were recently written by high school students–in their own hand.  These students on behalf of individuals at risk around the world.  The letters are going to people in Iran, Mexico, Myanmar, USA, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan, Greece, El Salvador, and several other countries–as part of a campaign coordinated by Amnesty International.  Our school is sending one hundred and seventeen letters in all.  Think of them as Christmas letters–wishing peace and justice for the imprisoned individuals and from the heads of state.

Here are a few verses from Christian scriptures, named on the note to the left of the envelopes.  Mary, mother of Jesus, is speaking to Elizabeth, mother of John:

“he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts

. . . he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

Students can write in many ways for various purposes.  This event gave them a real audience, and their letters make a real difference.  For example, over twenty years ago people wrote letters on behalf of a woman imprisoned by a military-led government.  This year she was elected President of that country.  Her release and rise to power came from thousands of people who applied persistent pressure.  I am not making this story up.  Letter-writers make a difference.

Merry Christmas.  Peace and justice on earth.

 

 

 

 

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A few haiku for you at the Paris climate talks

the moon is waning

even oak leaves are falling

sharp bright stars now shine

___

let them fall, all brown

though they cling with reluctance

let all of them fall

___

in winter the leaves

have all fallen to the ground

traffic now sounds loud

___

leaf blowers have stopped

gone are the oak leaves that were

falling quietly

___

we’re quick to move on

but the seasons each take time

may we look to this

bare trees 1

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DAESH, Listen to this

Another kind of power: “. . . truth and love and hope abide . . . ”

 

 

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Meet the Staffulty: Darrick Broudy

I am proud and grateful to have worked alongside Darrick during those early years of The BAY School of San Francisco. He is one of the most intelligent, creative and caring persons I know. What fun it is to laugh with him.

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students advise aspiring leaders

go extra mile when things not going well; take initiative, guide group through task; lead the effort; take control, give honest feedback–without anger, be trustworthy

give voice to voiceless; communicate appreciation; think of others first, help them be better; guide, support, be an example; be a leader, which is different from being a boss; take care of others, take responsibility

trust others; want what’s best for majority; unite the group, be one of them, be experienced

These are my notes from conversations with teenagers (high school juniors).  I asked them what makes a good leader, or what does the word “leadership” mean to them.  My notes record the gist of their answers.  Personally and professionally, I feel grateful to see the patterns in their thinking.

First, these students, who have been my advisees for two and half years, see leaders as people who make the extra effort.  They push themselves forward in some way, in order to guide the group.  Even, or maybe especially, when things are not going well, leaders are the ones who step forward to help improve the situation.  They take control, perhaps giving feedback to the group or to individuals about what actions would make the group stronger and more productive.  According to the students, leaders do all of this in a way that can be trusted, in part because they guide and provide without anger.

The second constellation of comments shows these students see leaders as people who think of others before themselves.  They want to help everyone become a better person, or better at their particular task or role.  A leader takes care of other people–for example, by giving voice to the voiceless.  Though a leader needs the ability to step forward when necessary, he or she also needs to step back, in order to hear and appreciate other voices.  The strongest leaders also communicate that appreciation, so that people feel supported by someone with experience and empathy.  In short, being a leader is different from just being a boss.

Finally, leaders of groups truly trust the other members of that group.  They don’t pretend to trust, or simply say they do, but actually demonstrate trust–for example, by giving others significant responsibilities.  Motivated by wanting what’s best for the majority, a good leader unites the group.  And uniting the group means the leader is part of it, not just in charge of it.  When the leader speaks and acts from experience, the other members of the group can trust her or him.

Again, I am grateful for and excited by the students who shared these thoughts.  As an elder, I am encouraged by the solid ideas  they have about effective leadership.  Their ideas help me consider the leader roles I take on.  Their thoughts also convince me that leaders appear in many arenas in many ways.  Just because you are in a position of public authority or responsibility does not mean you are a leader.  By the same token, you do not have to be in such a position to lead.

Thank you, Advisees!  Feel free to leave a comment.

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Why do people read fiction?

bookshelves556

“Why do people read fiction?” my father once asked me.  Throughout my career as a teacher, I have been trying to answer this question–for him, for colleagues, for students and myself.  Ten years ago, I had to propose an answer for colleagues with whom I taught Humanities.  Students in this course studied History, Literature, Religion, Philosophy and Art.  I found myself asking, “What’s the big deal about imaginative literature?  What does it bring to the table?”  Eventually, I boiled my answer down to three elements: imagination, empathy and expression.   The study of literature exercises these elements in ways other traditional disciplines do not.  More recently, I have asked my father’s question of students.  For example, they write about what is found in a short story like Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari” that does not appear in news articles about families fleeing Syria.  This exercise grows out of lines from a William Carlos Williams poem: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” What can we possibly gain from a fictional story on this topic?  Somewhere in Gordimer’s story we find something of value. Lastly, we also study fiction by writing some. This week, while visiting an Engineering Concepts class, I was reminded of what we do in “English” class.  The engineering students faced a design challenge, and the instructions observed that “this problem has many solutions.”  Students had to build a robot that does not “flip over or fall apart.”  These instructions made me wonder how I help students express themselves in a piece of writing that stays upright and cohesive. That’s what the best fiction writers do.  They imagine worlds and invite readers in–far enough in that we can empathize with the characters, struggle with them, experience their elations and deflations.  As I reflect on my father’s question, I am grateful–for two reasons.  First, he showed me that he didn’t know something and wanted to understand it.  Second, the thing he wanted to understand was my experience–in fact, a core part of my life’s work as an “English” teacher.  His question by the bookshelves in our den has stayed with me all these years, and I still wrestle with it.

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Do your homework

Recently I posted this writing on Facebook.  Given tomorrow’s event in Stone Mountain, GA and the recent dark-of-night placement of the flag at Ebenezer Church in downtown Atlanta, I am reposting it here.

Some forms of modern media encourage simplistic thinking–for example, “heritage not hate.” As individuals and as communities, we inherit various stories. One such inheritance is this statement by William T. Thompson, primary designer of the second national flag of The Confederacy, which featured the battle flag and became the most popular of the three proposed national flags during the four years of the Confederacy: “As a national emblem, it is significant of our higher cause, the cause of a superior race, and a higher civilization contending against ignorance, infidelity and barbarism . . . ” (May 4, 1863 DALLAS MORNING NEWS). On April 23 of the same year in the same newspaper, he had expressed the foundational idea of his flag design: ” [the Confederate nation is fighting to] maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior colored race.”

In place of simplistic thinking, all of us, including those across from the President’s OKC hotel yesterday [July 2015], must acknowledge the original beliefs behind this flag. Anything else, to borrow from Mr. Thompson, is ignorant of history, unfaithful to the nation’s aspirations and barbaric towards the painful experiences of others.

As a career teacher, I ask that people do their homework before behaving with mindless malice.

Source:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flags_of_the_Confederate_States_of_America

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mapping reading and the ABCs of verbal art

A colleague showed me this site recently, and I am experimenting with it as a way to push and share this summer’s reading–summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.

The site encourages me to read across the map, especially since I teach a high school sophomore class called World Literature.  I owe it to the students and myself and other global citizens to read widely.

Across literary genres and world regions, the human experience shines through.  It houses art, beauty and challenge–the ABCs of verbal art.

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