Friday, October 22, 2021

Get Out of Your Own Way and Help Your Students Show What They Know

Last quarter, one of the options I gave my students for their final assessment was to make a book trailer. Jonathan (not his real name) made a trailer about the “Five Nights at Freddy’s” book series. Watching it was an eye-opening experience. For one thing, it was damn good. The series is perhaps best described as light horror, and Jonathan employed the perfect soundtrack for it: discordant, jarring, pulsing with cheekily nefarious energy. Accompanying the jaggedy music were flickering phrases explaining the plot of the book and pictures both arresting and apt: evil animatronic bunnies, glowing eyes, a dirty ball pit. 

But it wasn’t just the quality of the project that caught me off guard. It was the student who had submitted it. All quarter I’d been assigning mini-essays; all quarter Jonathan had submitted them half-done if at all.

What startled me was not just that I had no idea, up until then, that he understood these skills; it was that, had I merely assigned him another essay for his final, I likely would have never realized how much he already knew.     

In his final, Jonathan demonstrated his understanding of genre, tone, and a whole host of rhetorical and persuasive skills we had worked on throughout the quarter. What startled me was not just that I had no idea, up until then, that he understood these skills; it was that, had I merely assigned him another essay for his final, I likely would have never realized how much he already knew.     

This is something I think about a lot, actually: How as teachers do we know what our students know?

It’s a critically important question, especially as we implement the standards-based pedagogy currently in vogue. 

Our own complacency, in this model, is a real threat, and goes something like this: We provide a standard and do our best to teach it; we then give an assessment and evaluate how well students demonstrate said standard. But are we really evaluating what our students know? Or are we evaluating our students’ engagement with our assessment?

I’ll say it again: How do we know what our students know?

My own take is that, as teachers, we often see gaps that don’t really exist.

Here’s a straightforward example. Let’s say a student doesn’t speak up in class. I mean that figuratively but also literally: the student doesn’t contribute much to the discussion, and when they do, they mumble. I’ve been in enough schools to know this is a fairly common “problem”—hopefully, those quotes make more sense in a bit—and one that has a fairly universal “solution.”

Maybe there’s signage on the walls with a picture of a remote and someone’s thumb on the volume button. Maybe a teacher or a whole school has decided on some sort of numerical shorthand. “Your voice is at a two right now—we need you at a three.” You get the idea. The point is that we’ve isolated what in our view is a problem and then created a standard to fix it: “Students will learn to increase the volume of their speech.” We’re teachers, and that’s how we’ve approached this “problem.” We’re going to teach students how to speak up.

Then the bell rings and the quiet student bolts from our classroom and hollers at a friend at the other end of the hallway.

Speaking up, in other words, was never something we needed to teach this student, because they already knew how to do it. 

This observation brings with it another question: If they knew how to speak up, why didn’t they? This is a really important question, I think, but one we can’t answer hypothetically because of the sheer number of factors at play: their personality, their culture, our classroom culture, the classroom cultures they’ve experienced before ever setting foot in our room, etc. 

Someone also might argue: “What does it matter if they technically CAN do something if the reality is that they’re not? A big part of life involves transferring what you know to different contexts. Clearly this student isn’t doing that.”

Students—and all human beings—DO need to be able to transfer their skills and knowledge to different settings. But assuming someone doesn’t know something vs. assuming they do know it in some contexts are very different things, and our pedagogy changes depending on which assumption we make.

I have some misgivings about almost all “welcome to the real world!” gripes, but putting those aside, fair enough. Students—and all human beings—DO need to be able to transfer their skills and knowledge to different settings. But assuming someone doesn’t know something vs. assuming they do know it in some contexts are very different things, and our pedagogy changes depending on which assumption we make.

If we think a student needs to be taught how to speak up, we come up with signs and shorthand. If we think they already know how but choose not to, we hopefully dig deeper—into our classroom, our lesson plans, our relationship with this student. We need to learn more about ourselves and them in order to change the context for them or us or both—in order, that is, to help them feel as comfortable speaking up in class as they do in the hallways.

Here are a few more assertions and accompanying quandaries I’ve begun to wrestle with:

  • Almost all students, at least at the high school level, have developed keen understandings of both metaphor and irony. They pass around memes comparing failing to move giant ships clogging the Suez Canal to systemic racism; they watch “The Daily Show.” So why, as just about any high school English teacher will tell you, are irony and figurative language so hard to teach?
  • Almost all students, at least in high school, recognize the need for evidence when speaking. Eavesdrop on teenagers casually talking, arguing, or gossiping. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll hear them citing their sources (“______________ told me _________________, but then _____________________ said,” etc.), giving examples, and expressing their own counterexamples. So why are all these skills so often hard to come by in their writing?

Again, there’s no one right answer to these questions, but assuming that there probably is an answer—that each student might have already mastered whatever standard I throw at them, but for some reason isn’t demonstrating this knowledge—makes teaching a more inventive, exciting and artistic profession.

If they likely already know something, how do I get out of my own way, or help them get out of theirs, to show off that knowledge? 

Photo by LightFieldStudios, Envato Elements.

Patrick Hueller
Patrick Hueller is an author and high school English teacher. His most recent book is a dystopian novel for teens called "Read at Your Own Peril." The goal of the book is to practice what he preaches in this article: to make reading seem as thrilling and even dangerous as it really can be.

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