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Using Culminating Assessments to Make Literature Relevant

As summer winds down and teachers begin preparing for the upcoming school year, our August newsletter will revisit some of the fundamental principles we use when planning our courses at Literary Focus, which would be a typical unit in a traditional school year. We begin our planning process by inverting Habit #3 from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which encourages us to "put first things first"; instead, we do the opposite: We put last things first—namely, our culminating assessments—which consist of the AP Literary Argument final essay, the Authentic Assessment final project, and the Socratic Seminar final discussion.

When planning all of our courses, we adhere to the “backward design” model espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their curricular handbook, Understanding by Design. When we teach a new book, we first choose an AP Literary Argument prompt (Question 3) from a previous AP Literature Exam to serve as the thematic focus of the course. We then think of three thought-provoking Essential Questions that we want students to consider while reading the book in preparation for the Socratic Seminar on the last day of class. Finally, we create an appropriate Authentic Assessment as a final project that asks students to apply the lessons learned from the literature to some real-world situation.

I. AP Literary Argument

A typical AP Literary Argument prompt presents a general theme found in many literary works and then provides a list of suggested titles that embody that theme. For instance, when we teach Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, we use the Literary Argument prompt from the 2010 AP Literature Exam, which asks students to consider the importance of “home” in a literary work and how a character's "idea of home illuminates the larger meaning of the work,” a phrase that the College Board uses to indicate theme:

By using past AP prompts from actual AP Exams, we let students know that we are preparing them for the rigor and challenge of college-level coursework. We emphasize that learning to write a proper literary analysis is a multi-year process, and the earlier students begin acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve this goal, the more prepared they will be when the time comes.

For that reason, we only choose books for our courses that have been suggested titles on previous AP Exams, which lends credibility to our selections for students and parents alike. Even our Level I books, which are typically taught in Grades 7-9, have been deemed of significant literary merit to have been included on previous AP Literature Exams, which lets students know that despite their young age, they are being asked to read and analyze important works of literature.

While it is true that writing an essay can often feel like a dry academic task in the best of circumstances, by using actual AP prompts from previous AP Exams, college-bound students inherently understand the relevance of the assignment, since they know that they will face similar kinds of essays in the not-too-distant future—either in an AP Literature class, on the AP Exam itself, or in a college-level English class.

We compare the experience of writing these AP-style essays to competing at the varsity level in high school athletics, where athletes must begin training at an early age if they want to excel at the varsity level later in their careers. For instance, the layups that one learns in a middle school basketball practice are the same ones that a player will practice at the varsity level many years later, but the speed and degree of difficulty will be more challenging as they compete at a higher level. We emphasize with students that developing any skill to the point where it becomes second-nature takes endless hours of practice and consistent feedback from a knowledgeable instructor or coach, whether that is in the classroom or on the athletic field.

When teachers select books for their courses, we encourage them to select an AP prompt that they think is most appropriate for the theme they want to emphasize over the duration of their unit. We introduce the AP Literary Argument prompt on the first day of our classes and advise students to always keep the AP prompt in mind as they read and annotate the text. Teachers should also keep the AP prompt in mind as they plan the rest of the unit, creating activities and assignments that will help students wrestle with the complexity of the theme on multiple occasions.

For instance, when we are choosing a poem to analyze that is related in theme to Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, we choose Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays" for our AP Poetry Analysis essay because it also discusses the importance of "home" and emphasizes how the speaker's perspective on his childhood—and his appreciation for his father—has changed over time. Since both Hayden's poem and Cisneros' novel share a theme concerning the importance of "home," we can compare and contrast the two works, which hopefully will give students a greater understanding and appreciation of both.

We also create a series of graphic organizers for students to complete throughout the course to give them multiple opportunities to analyze how Esperanza's attitude towards her house and neighborhood on Mango Street changes from the opening vignette to the end of the novel. In that way, we ensure that students reflect on the central theme of the novel concerning the importance of "home" multiple times before they are asked to write the final essay.

II. Socratic Seminar

Once we have established a thematic focus for the course through the AP Literary Argument prompt, we then create three Essential Questions for students to ponder as they read the text. The Essential Questions are meant to challenge students to consider the deeper, more philosophical implications of the work, and we explain to students that the best Essential Questions are the ones that do not have easy answers; in fact, we emphasize with students that any answer they formulate should always be considered provisional and subject to change. In Understanding by Design, Wiggins and McTighe argue that an effective Essential Question

  • causes genuine and relevant inquiry into the big ideas and core content;

  • provokes deep thought, lively discussion, sustained inquiry, and new understanding;

  • requires students to consider alternatives, weigh evidence, support ideas, and justify answers;

  • stimulates vital, on-going rethinking of big ideas, assumptions, and prior lessons;

  • sparks meaningful connections with prior learning and personal experiences;

  • recurs, creating opportunities for transfer to other situations and subjects.

Based on the above criteria, the Essential Questions contain a lot of significance, and we openly admit to students that we are constantly tweaking and reconsidering our Essential Questions and will be seeking their feedback at the end of the course on how we can improve them.

When we teach Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), for instance, we ask students to consider the following three Essential Questions as they read about the experiences of the novel’s protagonist, Gogol Ganguli, as a second-generation Bengali immigrant in the United States:

1. What does it mean to be an "American"?

2. How do our names shape our identities?

3. Should we care about our cultural heritage?

We emphasize with students that these types of questions are ones that all of us—meaning students and teachers alike—should contemplate not just when we are reading the novel, but throughout our lives, and that our thinking about these Essential Questions will most likely evolve as we age and gain more experience.

To begin the process of thinking about these questions in more depth, we give students an initial journal assignment that asks them to respond to a thought-provoking quotation that addresses, in a general sense, at least one of the Essential Questions. With Lahiri’s novel, for instance, we use the following quotation from French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986):

We choose quotations like de Beauvoir's because they are either ambiguous or somewhat provocative in order to make students wrestle with the ideas presented, forcing them to draw conclusions without necessarily knowing the context of the thoughts they are considering. In this way, student responses often go in many divergent directions, which makes reading those responses much more interesting. After introducing the quotation, we have students write a 150-word journal for homework that has the following three components:

When students finish writing their responses, they post them on our online discussion board during the first week of class. During the second week, they then read each other's entries and respond to two of them in no more than 150 words. In this way, students begin an online conversation that concludes with our Socratic Seminar on the last day of class, where we attempt to push these ideas even further in a live discussion.

Before we begin the Socratic Seminar, we emphasize with students that these discussions are not debates; instead, the goal is to collectively delve into the complexity of the issues to try to reach some clarity in our own thinking, knowing that our views will most likely change from the beginning of the discussion to the end as we hear viewpoints and perspectives different from our own. To provide a communal code of conduct, we set the following guidelines for the seminar:

1. Be courteous and respectful of your classmates at all times.

2. Seek to understand as well as to be understood.

3. Support your claims with specific examples or concrete details from the text.

4. Maintain an open mind and be willing to re-think your position.

5. Move the discussion forward by offering new insights and asking new questions.

We do not require students to raise their hands during a Socratic Seminar; instead, they should allow the person presently speaking to finish their thought before jumping in to offer a response—always being sure to defer to students who have not spoken as much as they have. Students should refer to each other by their names when responding, and they should build off previous arguments to ensure the discussion grows as organically as possible.

As teachers prepare their units, they should always keep the Essential Questions in mind and create various assignments and activities to ensure students revisit them as they are reading the text. In other words, we should always look for opportunities in class to reference the Essential Questions when analyzing, for instance, a character's actions, words, or motivationswith the goal of using the questions not just to better understand the characters, but also to consider the significance of the Essential Questions in our own lives.

III. Authentic Assessment

In addition to the final essay and the concluding discussion, we also have students work on a final project that they will present at the end of the course. The Authentic Assessment asks students to apply the lessons learned from the literature to some relevant, real-world situation. For example, when we teach William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, students are asked to consider the nature of courage as they evaluate Macbeth's thoughts, actions, and motivations as he pursues his ambition to become King of Scotland. As students analyze Macbeth’s character, they are also imagining that they have been asked by the Nobel Foundation in Sweden to submit a nomination for a new prize that they are planning to award the following year:

This particular Authentic Assessment asks students to think of a person in the real world who has inspired them by displaying courage in the face of hardship or adversity. In the past we have had students nominate people such as Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist from Sweden who challenged world leaders in an address at the UN to take immediate action to mitigate climate change; Brian Flores, the Black football coach who risked his career to sue the NFL for racial discrimination in its hiring practices; and Liz Cheney, the Republican senator from Wyoming who willingly sacrificed her political career by defying her party and serving on the January 6 committee.

Through the Authentic Assessment that we use when reading Macbeth, we hope students will implicitly compare and contrast the characteristics of the people they are nominating with the title character of Shakespeare's play and what we should learn from both examples. In many ways, one could argue that the Authentic Assessment is the most important culminating activity because it requires students to move beyond the text to determine how its lessons are relevant and significant in the real world. In this particular assignment on Macbeth, for instance, students have to decide what it means to be courageous, which will not only help them recognize true courage in others, but also inspire them to live more courageously themselves.

Our overall goal in all of our courses at Literary Focus is the same: to challenge students to think deeply about the literature to discover their own truths about the characters and situations. We also want our students to consider how the lessons learned from the literature might impact their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. For that reason, we encourage teachers to begin their own planning process by creating these three culminating assessments first, which hopefully students will use as springboards for further thought and contemplation long after the unit or course has concluded.

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