As an advocate for personalized learning, my perspective is simple: I’m constantly looking for ways to foster learner agency and put students at the center of the learning. To that end, this is the story of a recent experiment with offering learners the opportunity to collaborate on the design of their summative assessment over our recent five-day mini-unit exploring Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey.”
During those sessions, we held whole-group discussions over the phases and steps of Campbell’s heroic plotline, and learners analyzed a movie of their choice and a challenging time from their own life experiences according to Campbell’s work.
At the end of the week, my student teacher and I decided to pose this discussion question to our students:
Given the content we covered and the formative experience you had engaging this material, what would be an appropriate way to summatively assess what you know about “The Hero’s Journey?”
The question was met with blank looks and puzzled faces for a multitude of reasons. Most students didn’t understand the question, so I rephrased it, “What would be a fair way to test you over this stuff?”
At that moment, there was this audible, collective exhale, a sound familiar to most secondary teachers as the moment when the class realizes, often reluctantly, that they are actually going to have to think. Then, pin-drop silence. How should we be assessed? Puzzled looks slowly evaporate leaving contemplative stares that thoughtfully search for an answer. As a teacher, this moment is as awkward or as rewarding as you allow it to be. I sat back and let that silence settle in because on some level, I had anticipated this response. I imagine that for many of them, this was the first time that they had ever been asked this question.
Slowly, almost as if they had to crawl out of their thinking to speak, I saw one student gather herself to speak.
“So, like, your asking what the test should look like?”
“Yes,” I said. “I mean, you’re seniors right? I figure after, what – twelve years in this system, you should have a pretty good idea about what test can and should look like.”
Heads nodded in agreement as the silence set in again.
Then another student spoke.
“Well, so, I guess we could all take a story and break it down to show you that we know the steps.”
I nodded in approval. Then I ask, “So do you want me to give you all a story to read?”
You could immediately feel that the room didn’t approve.
Another student spoke, “No, like, what if we pick the story we want to use. That way each of us can pick a story we know.”
“That’s fair,” I said, “but should we get to pick any story. Should we get to pick one we’ve already broken down together.”
Several heads shook in disapproval and a few nos could be heard from around the room.
“Okay, so any story that we haven’t discussed in class is on the table then. So like, do you literally mean any story? Movie, book, whatever?”
“Yeah,” one student took the lead, “I don’t think it really matters if it’s a movie or a book or a series. We are just trying to prove that we know the steps, right?”
“Right,” I affirmed. “So my next question is, would personal stories be okay?”
“Yeah I think so,” another student said, “I mean, we did that for the formative, so it would make sense that you could pick your own story.”
“…as long as it isn’t the one you did before,” said another.
“Okay,” I said, trying to stay somewhat removed from the conversation.
Then there was a pause that created an opportunity for another student to speak.
“Wait, this just all seems pretty pointless.”
“Go on,” I urged.
“Like, we already broke down three movies and an example from our lives. Why do we have to do this again?”
“Great question,” I responded. “You all are the ones designing this thing, so that’s a question you have to answer.”
Then another student spoke up, “Well, for mine, I got most of it right the first time, but when Mr. Easton put feedback on it, I saw some things I got wrong the first time, and I think I would be better at it now.”
“That’s kind of how formatives work,” I said with a smirk.
The girl who had asked the question wasn’t thrilled with this answer, but she couldn’t argue with her peer’s logic.
At this moment the principal happened to saunter in for an unannounced observation. The room momentarily got quiet. I acknowledged him and said, “Hey, we are talking about how we want our test to look.”
Immediately, a student raised her hand, in a way that felt inspired by the principal’s presence in the room. She was looking to press the issue.
“I guess I just don’t get why we are even having this conversation. It just feels like we are wasting time. Like, if you gave the test right now, we could all probably finish it in the time we are going to spend talking about it, so not to be rude but, all of this seems kind of pointless.”
Cue another awkward silence, but this time an urgent one. This was one of those moments where the students were wide-eyed and wondering how I was going to respond to a public and direct affront to the work we were trying to do.
I collected my thoughts and spoke.
“Well, you know, you’ve got a point,” I responded, “this certainly does take longer, and believe me, it would definitely be easier for me to just tell you what you’re going to do and then force you to live up to my expectations. I certainly am in a position to do that. But here’s how I see it. Most of you in here are 18 or are about to be 18, right? In six months, some of you will go to college, but from what you have told me, most of you are headed into the workplace starting in June. When you get there, I want you to have both the perspective to evaluate what’s fair and the courage to speak up for yourselves within your workplace in a professional manner. What I don’t want is for you to aimlessly go about your jobs, unhappy with your employers, but only voicing those concerns with your spouse and your friends outside of work. You need to have learning experiences that teach you how to advocate for the changes you want to see and collaborate with others towards reaching a compromise in those moments. But if you want me to leave you out of that process I can…”
Our principal let out an audible chuckle and chimed in.
“Mr. Easton brings up a good point. We don’t always do a good job of giving you a chance to think through these things and talk about them, and there needs to be more of that.”
Then the conversation took off.
The students decided that the test should include the following test options…
- Option #1: Students could evaluate any story— be it from a book, movie, or series— according to The Hero’s Journey outline (providing it wasn’t a story we had discussed in class).
- Option #2: Students could evaluate a significant event in their life according to The Hero’s Journey outline (providing it wasn’t a life experience they had previously explored in class).
- Option #3: Students could watch a movie in class and fill out their test according to that movie.
Two of the three classes also felt that knowing something was different from being able to use it, and so they felt that a multiple choice test was also necessary to show knowledge in addition to application. When we discussed the order of these two assessments, the group felt that the test that asked them to analyze a movie, book, TV season, or personal experience (or a movie that we viewed in class) should go first because they wanted one more exposure to the steps (in the written test) prior to taking the knowledge level assessment. Honestly, this was the reverse order of what I would have given, but when they talked it out, it made sense.
While I’m not saying that teachers should always let students design their summative assessments; what I am advocating for is that educators continually look for opportunities to empower learners outside of the familiar avenues used to afford learners’ choice. These opportunities create space for teachable moments that teachers can capitalize on in ways that foster learner agency and expand the relevance students see in the work that they are doing. So I challenge you, as you look to your own lesson plans for this week, to find one responsibility that you typically take upon yourself and share that responsibility with your students.