Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.
In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.
Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!
With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.
I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.
I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.
I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.
So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.
They want a slice of the pie.
But our kids are dying of boredom.
So please, for this mother.
No. More. Book. Reports.
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You’ve nailed the problem in a nutshell. Teachers are now gearing their teaching to a test rather than planning engaging, creative and inventive assignments. This is not authentic teaching and is a product of the unfair pressured heaped on teachers based on data from those tests.
So what are parents with children in public school supposed to do to show our dissent? I have a RADICAL idea: What if we kept our kids HOME on test days? Wouldn’t that send message that we’ve had enough? Or would we be shooting ourselves in out collective foot as our schools would, theoretically, not be eligible for state funding? Ick! They’ve got us bent over a barrel. 😦
My experience as a reading/language arts teacher has shown me that students who prepare such projects BY THEMSELVES often become avid readers and show considerable excitement over a good book. However, too frequently it is the parents that are the creative ones, staying up all night constructing some monumental piece of artwork. How does this help the student? It doesn’t, except that he/she has learned an easy way out of work.
In my experience, because students get to choose their own projects (sometimes even electing to design something totally new), parents are RARELY involved unlike book reports or essays which are often corrected by parents. How does THAT help a teacher assess a student’s ability?
I’m totally with you. I a well-executed creative project — which involves wholly absorbing the material then riffing on it — is more advanced than just reporting on it. A pox upon the idea that standardized test should be the basis for evaluating all learning!
I’ve also kept some of my students’ best work. There’s the hip-hop adaptation of ancient play, some poetry in the style of Catullus, and movie pitches based on mythology….it reminds me that these kids will probably go on to do something interesting in the world
Don’t you love going back to see old students’ projects. I swear it’s like eating chocolates.
When I taught at Country Day School in New Orleans, students started painting my hideous, old metal desk with symbolic scenes and quotes from books we read together. I loved that desk! I wonder if it made it, post-Katrina. 😉
You sad “A pox upon…” That reminds me of It’s A Wonderful Life 🙂
I cannot agree with you more. Book reports, or journal entries on books, are just so limiting, boring and passe. Why not some creative or engaging way to assess performance?
I’ve been asking myself that question for about 16 weeks now. Six book reports later, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a default setting. It takes work and time to create interesting, innovative curriculum. If a teacher hasn’t had the opportunity for continuing education or if he or she is new, if he or she is in a non-collaborative environment, or if a teacher is coasting toward retirement, book reports require very little on their end.
It is much more difficult to take time to explain what it is that you are looking for the kids the do and then carve out the time for them to do it, but honestly, it is truly worth the time investment. Students who do not connect with the characters and their dilemmas on a personal level can have trouble thinking creatively or critically about the literature or struggle later on — especially as the reading becomes more challenging.
The creators of No Child Left Behind obviously never read “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!” by Dr. Seuss. Those kids learned all kinds of things in all kinds of engaging ways. But then they found out they’d have to take a TEST! They were very worried. Had they learned what they needed to? Would they pass the test? Of course! They’d learned the most importatant thing – how to think.
My daughter (8th grade) had to do a project earlier this year. She had to create a fake Facebook page for a character in a book she’d read. She created a profile page complete with a profile picture, activites, interests, likes/dislikes, etc. There were “friends” – other characters in the book. She created wall posts from those friends and responses to the posts. All things that the characters would have likely thought and said to one another in this type of medium. It was very creative, and I thought the posts were great. (I had read the book, too, so I knew the characters.)
Come to think of it, my daughter has had to do very few traditional book reports. She has made a diorama of a scene in a book (with a written page describing the scene and how it was important in the story). She has had to keep a “reading dialog” – a notebook in which she writes a letter to her teacher with her thoughts on whatever independent reading she is currently doing. It was not to be a summary of the book (or section of the book since the last letter), but rather her thoughts on what she’s read. For example, how she might feel if she were in the shoes of one of the characters. Or maybe what she predicts will happen further on in the book. Then the teacher would write a letter in response, perhaps with questions relating to the original letter. And back and forth like that.
Faith, these are precisely the type of age-appropriate assignments that I am talking about. They engage students and discourage plagiarism as students are usually very invested.
Maybe by 8th grade then? Perhaps this is the “learn how to write a book report” year.
I think both the diorama and the reading dialog journal were in 5th grade. Her teacher had asked if she could keep that diorama, like you still have that video. My daughter had agreed to return it to her teacher at the end of the school year, but it still sits on a shelf in our house 3 years later! Maybe younger daughter can submit it next year! 😉 The Facebook project was perfect, because what 13-year-old isn’t on Facebook? I’m really pleased with the assignments she is given. She’s had to create video’s for French class. And this year, her ELA and Social Studies teachers are working together to cover similar material – social justice, power, genocide – with ELA using fiction and SS using history to talk about the same values. It’s pretty neat!
I used this technique for my students that were 2 to 5 years behind grade level in reading in my 11th grade history class for most assignments. Students could choose a format. It is called “alternative assessment” and designed to give “slow” ones a chance to succeed and build a little confidence. You would be surprised that many of the “F” kids in all the other teacher’s classes produced art that was astonishing and of near professional quality. As my experience was in mostly all black high schools the students learned American and African American history especially with such things as drawings and dioramas of Harriet Tubman and escaping slaves as well as portraying the torment of contemporary inner city life. They were worthy of social anthropology MA degrees in my opinion with their first hand or primary source presentations.
Hey kids! This year we’re going to take dynamic subjects and completely beat the snot out of them until the only joy you’ll find in writing is when you don’t have to do it anymore! As a special bonus, you’ll come to loathe reading useful books. On top of all that, you’ll all become convinced that teachers are dull at best, so the most creative of you can pursue other fields and deprive future generations of quality teachers. Sound good?
Hey, Mr. Snarky. Look at you! 😉