What are we trying to learn here?

I am currently teaching Grade 12 University English at summer school in York Region. I actually enjoy summer school; it’s one group of kids for one month doing one course. It’s condensed, it’s intensive, it has none of the distractions of Day School, and on a selfish note, the pay ain’t too shabby.

This month, we’ve crammed a lot into a small amount of time: Literary Criticism using short stories, a small-group novel study, an independent study using novels and movie adaptations, and yes, a Shakespeare. Tests, essays, discussions and creative assignments. It’s been a whirlwind.

I have ot admit that, while I am quite familiar with King Lear, it’s not a play I have ever taught or worked on, which was the first challenge. Knowing a play and teaching it are two different things, and because I have never had the opportunity to work with it, I had a very short amount of time to move it from one part of my brain to another.

Of course, the tricks of the trade don’t change much from play to play. Introducing Shakespeare as a performance text isn’t text-dependent: teaching students how to read the text, play with the metre, and read for understanding are universal skills, and I have my own bag-of-tricks with texts I have selected over the years to teach these skills. I even get to do my own “Shakespeare Lectures,” in which my inner History nerd gets to talk about Shakespeare’s World, the Elizabethan age, and all that fun stuff.

In Day School, I have all the time in the world (well, within reason) to work on Shakespeare. My Shakespeare units tend to run up to 6 weeks, during which time I have the time to ensure that students are reading deeply and critically, looking for clues as to the meaning of the text, and most of all, working with the text on their feet in the class.

Of course, I need to assess their understanding of the text. This is where things get tricky.

One of the best compliments I ever received was from a Drama student almost 10 years ago, who commented that she loved coming to class because “She forgot that she was being marked.” She was there to participate and to learn, and the marks didn’t matter (and I should note, her marks were stellar).

In Day School, I can take a more holistic view of the assessment: the culminating activity is generally a performance, in the style of “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” where students have to edit down the entire play (or an act, in the case of Grade 9s and 10s) to 10 or 15 minutes. In the senior grades, we ask them to look at the play through the lens of a particular character (Grade 11) or theme (Grade 12). Their ability to focus on what is important in the story is what is key.

Here, though, I have fallen back onto my old tricks, which made for a frustrating realization. In trying to focus on their “Knowledge and Understanding” marks, and in keeping with the parameters set out by the 12U Team here, I gave them two tests to assess their understanding of the basic plot and key passages. It didn’t go well. The class average was in the high 60s, and the mode was in the 70s for their second test.

And yet, when I sit in and observe the work that students are doing on their performance projects now, they are clearly understanding the task, and are quite capable of editing the script down to its “key” parts.

Did the test really show me their understanding of the play? Perhaps… if what I want them to take a way is a pedantic knowledge of the play. Do they need to understand the plot and the characters? Absolutely. Is assessing that knowledge through a sit-down test the best way to do that? Perhaps not.

I like to be challenged in my practice, and this is one of those self-challenging moments. I will have to go now and think about what is it I actually want to assess when it comes to my students’ understanding of Shakespeare’s works, and how I can assess that authentically so what they know is properly measured… and credited.

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