I’m a big believer in switching things up, getting away from the traditional assignments every once in a while to give students a different perspective or to find a different way for students to demonstrate what they learn or discover on their own.
One of the most traditional assignments I can think of is the book report. I had to do these in high school – some presented orally for the teacher (I don’t think I ever gave one in front of a whole class, although I might be mistaken on that), some written before class, and some written during class – and I hated them. In fact, I frequently managed to fool my teachers into thinking I had actually read the book, once with Fahrenheit 451 and once with The Scarlet Letter, because the reports focused more on plot summary than on the overall themes or issues in the books. (I ended up reading and enjoying both of them, of course, but that’s beside the point.) I am acutely aware that book reports are not only tedious (generally for both student and teacher) but also largely ineffective in accurately assessing students’ independent reading.
In my very first language arts methods course, we looked at some alternatives, 50 of them to be exact, set out by one of the coauthors of our text, Diana Mitchell (the text is Exploring and Teaching the English Language Arts, coauthored with Stephen Tchudi). They are unique and require a great deal more thought than simply spewing out plot summary or perhaps personal reactions to the events. A few examples:
Critique from the point of view of a specific organization. Select an organization that might have a lot to say about the actions or portrayals of characters in the novel you read, and write a critique of the book from its point of view. For example the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals might have a lot to say about Lennie’s treatment of animals in Of Mice and Men, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the portrayal of Crooks, and the National Organization of Women on the portrayal of Curley’s wife and the fact that she was never given a name.
Chat room conversations. Imagine that your character has found other people to talk with while in a chat room he or she found while surfing the Internet. Describe the chat room your character was in and why your character would be drawn to the kind of group that operates the chat room. Then construct the conversation your character had with others while in the chat room.
Music. After reading a novel, figure out how you would divide the book into sections. Then select a piece of music that you think captures the feel or tone of each section. Record the pieces and if possible do voice-overs explaining what is happening in the novel during the piece of music and why you felt this piece of music fit the section of the novel.
Those are just three of 50, and I could see modifications of each that would work equally well, in my opinion. I also think – and I may do this in my own planning for independent reading projects in two of my courses – that it would be interesting to align some options for students with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory. Clearly, “Music” would align with musical intelligence, and I could envision some additional assignments (for interpersonal intelligence, having two students read related books independently and record a dialogue of a conversation they have about the major issues in the book they each had read).
So here’s a question for any teachers, English or otherwise: what overly traditional assignments have you decided (or would you like) to discard, and what type of authentic assessments would you replace them with?