Written by: Kristen Spangler
Imagine that you are in attendance at a twenty-year high school reunion. Gathered around the punchbowl are some former classmates, each of whom is engaged in a discussion about their most memorable assignment. One after another waxes poetically about the soda volcano in science, the diorama of Gettysburg in American history or the debate between Euclid and Pythagoras over who did more for the field of geometry. What you will never hear, no matter how long you stand there, is how wonderful it was to write a paper on the holes in Atticus Finch’s arguments. It is even probable that those gathered round that punchbowl aren’t even sure who Atticus Finch is.
Few people count writing any paper in English as a high school highlight. Even fewer would admit ever enjoying writing one at all. Simply comparing the hypothetical alumni’s responses with the essay yields the reason: the essay lacks the pizzazz of the fizzy explosion or the Ancient Greeks’ conversation because it isn’t quite an act of creation. It is, in fact, more regurgitation than anything.
Now, imagine that you are on the other side of the argument. You are the English teacher well aware of the fact that most of your students groan at the thought of writing. You, too, groan at the thought of responses to the same stale prompts you issued last year and the year before. (There are, after all, only so many ways to look at the famous trial from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.) It would be lovely to have the glitz and glitter of the science teachers’ experiments, but essay writing doesn’t tend to lend itself well to that. Without further ado, you sit down to your computer and press print, having changed the date on the essay prompts from 2019 to 2020. In a few weeks, you’ll brew up a strong pot of coffee and break out your secret stash of good red pens, knowing you’ll probably not be remembered for your assignments in twenty years’ time. (If only you’d have paid more attention in physics class …)
Higher Order Thinking
Let’s engage those rules of physics and go back in the time machine to the second paragraph for a moment. There’s a key word in there, and that key word is create. It is the reason why those assignments were memorable.
Assignments that involve creation engage the highest level of human thought, according to educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. In 1956, Bloom developed a theory of education that divided the acquisition and use of knowledge into six categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. Arranged into a pyramid, the categories, from base to tip, represent simple to complex—and concrete to abstract—learning. Known today as Bloom’s Taxonomy, the theory has guided K-12 curriculum design ever since.
Recently, a group of educational specialists and cognitive psychologists revised the taxonomy, based in part on an effort to make the categories more dynamic. For example, there are many ways a student might demonstrate comprehension of material, though Bloom’s original taxonomy seems to suggest only one: Does the student understand? The group aimed to expand the categories to help underscore this variety.
Like Bloom’s original, the revised taxonomy uses six words to name the stages of learning. These stages begin with remember, or simple recall, and end with that key word from earlier, create. Within each stage, the group also included action words that describe the processes a student encounters in working with knowledge. Terms such as discuss, describe and explain—standard sentence starters in English essay questions—only go as far on the pyramid as the second level, Understand. The key word Analyse, another infamous English essay prompt, reaches the fourth level, but still does not engage the learner in the same way that the word design does. That term, incidentally, is a key word in many science class tests (e.g. Design an experiment in which …).
It is easy to see why the English teacher’s students do not look fondly upon writing assignments. They simply aren’t being challenged. Moreover, they aren’t being challenged to involve themselves in the process.
Back in our time machine, we return to the present day—and the English teacher. Having sat in the faculty room overhearing the excitement of her colleagues—themselves waxing rhapsodically over their unique and innovative assessment designs—she returns to her classroom, fearing the deadline for submission of midterm exam prompts. Reviewing last year’s questions makes her sigh, as she contemplates reading at least twenty essays on Beowulf’s women. It’s the topic students feel the most comfortable with. It was discussed in class in increments, each woman encountered in the text analysed for her role in the tension and drama of the epic Old English poem. Dreaming of a way that she can make midterms less of a slog for both herself and her students, she closes that document window and opens a brand new one. Then, she begins to think.
By now, you may have noticed that the English teacher in question is YCDS’s Ms Spangler, who teaches tenth grade American literature and eleventh and twelfth grade honours English. Ms Spangler’s wish for a more captivating midterm is a common one. A quick Google search for answers to the question “Why give midterm exams?” yields a fairly common response: Both students and educators find exams to be stressful. This is especially true for exams that are administered during a given slot, where, as Kevin Gannon notes, sometimes “a few students do A work all semester only to be derailed by one bad day.” The anxiety over exams is well known for students, but perhaps less so for educators. For them, the exam is less about the eventuality of grading and more about the exam’s content. In short, they worry if the design of their assessment is adequate for students to demonstrate what they actually learnt in class. This thought isn’t limited to exams, of course, but the stakes are often higher in those cases as opposed to other forms of testing.
Thus, when Ms Spangler considered this year’s midterm exam, she wanted it to look different from those of past papers. The honours exam in British literature was full of prompts that began with the words discuss, examine or explain. To co-opt a pop culture reference, holding that paper in her hand didn’t “spark joy.” The class had covered some fairly monumental texts to date, among them Beowulf, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “The Battle of Maldon.” At the end of the second quarter, they completed their study of medieval literature, having viewed the beautiful, illuminated letters of the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales as a capstone to the reading of the text. Ms Spangler wanted to make sure that her midterm asked students to drawn upon all of those in turn—and not just what they understood, but how and why they understood it.
The class had also been keeping track of British current events and were well aware of the tumult with both Brexit and the royal family. They had watched some of Prime Minister’s Questions in class and had also talked about Queen Elizabeth II’s role in all of it. Ms Spangler wondered what her students would tell Prime Minister Boris Johnson or the Queen if they had the opportunity. Shortly thereafter, the first midterm prompt was born.
Students were given four prompts to choose from, each assessing a different facet of the honours English curriculum, yet each drawing upon the same body of texts. One prompt asked students to draw upon their studies of women in Old English and medieval literature to flatter the Queen during a royal reception. Another asked students to write their own Canterbury tale, using Beowulf and King Arthur as inspiration. Still another challenged students to offer advice to Boris Johnson to keep him in favour with the Queen and Parliament. The prompts were issued just under two weeks before the English midterm was to be given.
But that was only part of the assignment. There were oohs and ahs galore the day each class saw the illumination from the Ellesmere manuscript—especially given the blending of letters and artistry. Ms Spangler wagered that, in addition to writing creative non-fiction for the exam, students might want to further immerse themselves in the project by creating their own illuminated letter. The letter would serve as the cover page for their paper.
The directions were (fairly) simple: students were asked to choose a letter that meant something to them–such as the first letter of their first name–and create an illumination that reflects who they are. The catch? It had to be hand-drawn.
Ms Spangler distributed an assignment sheet to students before winter break. The assignment sheet briefly explained the role of illumination in medieval manuscripts. Ms Spangler also spoke to students about the types of pigments used and the types of letters scribes created. Some scribes chose to set the letters inside small scenes, while others used what is nowadays called the drop cap. Students thus had their choice: create a scene, or create a drop cap. Colour was optional but strongly encouraged. The finished product was to be attached to their completed midterm exam. Ms Spangler ended the class by encouraging students to have fun with the project, letting their imaginations run wild.
The day of the English exam arrived. Students stopped Ms Spangler in the halls to hand in their papers. Several of them expressed surprise at how well their letters turned out. Others wanted to point out the hobbies they included, adding things like, “I’m sure you can tell it’s mine.” Most of the students wanted to share with her how much they enjoyed both aspects of the paper, the writing and the illustrating. The most common response was that it was completely different from what they expected the midterm to be, and that was a good thing.
Back in her classroom, Ms Spangler began to sift through the submissions. The midterms were nothing short of amazing. Queen Elizabeth II was praised for her fortitude in times of trouble, just as the queens in Beowulf. Boris Johnson was urged to remember the will of the people as well as national stability, as great leaders in medieval times were wont to do. Those students who selected The Canterbury Tales option even wrote in verse!
The combined class average for the midterm was an A+.
Days later, Ms Spangler began her annual review of the exam’s effectiveness. Considering the students’ reactions, efforts, approaches and scores, it was easy to deem the exam a success. But it was more than that. Unwittingly, she had created an assessment that reached the pinnacle of Bloom’s pyramid, an exam that invited students to create—alchemy, to harken back to the medieval era. Students had transformed metal into gold, so to speak.
There are lessons here beyond the scope of this article. The point, however, is two-fold: Teachers aim for a comprehensive review, but sometimes that review is best accomplished through creative expression, not academic accounting. Many students simply find formal writing too restrictive, which inhibits their ability to craft strong arguments. Further, teachers hope that students apply their knowledge to a situation, not embed it as a stand-alone, singular object. An exam that calls upon students to become authors themselves achieves these goals. Clearly, Bloom was on to something.
Ms Spangler is now among those happily recounting her assessment design in the faculty room. Periodically, she rereads one (or thirty) of the students’ submissions, gazing gleefully at the cover page after finishing. Hopefully in twenty years, when they are gathered around the punchbowl at their class reunion, her students will recall when they stepped into Chaucer’s shoes or had a moment to converse with the Queen of England, and they’ll joyfully rattle on about the time they actually enjoyed writing an English paper.