Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Bring Me to the Test: Assessment in the Secondary Shakespeare Classroom

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By Josh Cabat

It happens every time I give a presentation on performance-based teaching or on using student-created projects to assess understanding of Shakespeare. After the session, two or three people come over to me privately and ask the same question. These sound like wonderful activities, they say, but how do we assess students’ performance on them?

The answer I want to give, naturally, is that these activities transcend anything that could be marked on a scale of 0-100 or A to F. In the real world, however, where classroom time is so precious and students (and parents) are often grade-conscious to a fault, dodging the question or rising loftily above it is not acceptable.

#NCTE14: Join us for a workshop on Shakespeare and the (Common Core) Assessments this Friday, November 21, at 4pm. It’s one of five Friday sessons we’re leading on teaching Shakespeare.

One simple answer, of course, is the use of rubrics. In the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free series, there are several excellent examples of these assessment tools. Some relate to smaller activities along the way. For example, in her unit on Romeo and Juliet in SSF, Sue Biondo-Hench includes a grading guide for her Shakespearean Snapshots exercise for Act 3, scene 1. Another example in SSF that anticipated the CCSS is an exercise where students are responsible for learning vocabulary based on context. This might lead to short traditional vocabulary quizzes, or using apps like SurveyMonkey and Quizzam to assess comprehension in digital classrooms.

Most of the rubrics in SSF, not surprisingly, relate to culminating student performances. Among the categories that are included in these assessment tools are understanding of plot, character and language, use of blocking and costumes and some wiggle room for “something extra.” This is an excellent place to start, but there are many variations on this basic theme.

One such possibility, which dovetails with elements of the CCSS very nicely, is to create an original performance rubric along with the students in the class. Start by asking them what the elements of a well-performed scene are; chances are they will come up with a list exactly like the one above. Then, within each category, discuss what high, medium and low results might look like for that element, and you’re ready to go.

In my experience, student-created rubrics work because they afford students a sense of agency in their own assessment, and because expectations are clearly laid out from the beginning of the assignment.  The use of rubrics, of course, extends to student-created projects like videos, trailers, digital storytelling, soundtracks with liner notes, graphic novels and the many other such projects that have been detailed elsewhere in these pages. One thing about assessment is clear: it is self-defeating for a teacher to give performance-based or creative assignments without clearly laying out the expectations for that project as early as possible and in the context of a rubric.

As useful as rubrics are, they may not alone suffice. An additional form of assessment that is essential to the success of activities mentioned above is having students write about process. For my students, every scene they put on and every creative project they hand in must be accompanied by a brief (4-5 paragraph) essay describing their process and tracing the progression of learning that happened throughout. This kind of writing, which should itself be assessed with a rubric, is critical for several reasons. First and foremost, it gets students thinking in a metacognitive way about themselves as learners, an awareness that will prove extremely valuable down the road. And considering that the CCSS puts progress above pure achievement as an aim, the student piece will enable both teacher and student to get at least an anecdotal account of that progress.

The next step in assessment employs variations on a more traditional exam. In New York, we are gearing up for the implementation of the new CCSS-based Regents test. This exam reflects the trend towards making upper-level exams similar in form to the AP Language and Composition exam; it features text-based multiple choice, a synthesis essay and a rhetorical analysis essay.

Now imagine creating an exam such as this to give to students at the end of a unit where the central text is a Shakespeare play; let’s say that play is Romeo and Juliet. Your multiple choice questions could be based on excerpts from the play that you have paid particular attention to in class. These questions, as with most assessments based on the CCSS, would be focused on inference, authorial purpose and rhetoric/structure; the excerpts themselves would be included on the exam, since this is an assessment of skills and not of memorization. For the synthesis essay, you might put together a series of four or five non-fiction articles that reflect how, as in the case of a joint Israeli-Palestinian production from a few years ago, the play has been used in performance to explore the power of love to transcend cultural and ethnic differences. Finally, you might use an excerpt from a critical piece on the play as the foundation for the rhetorical analysis essay. Since the essence of approaching any text via rhetoric is, “What is the argument of the piece, and how is language used to promote that argument?” the students’ strong knowledge of the play will help them understand the critical piece and argue either for or against it in essay form.

In employing these creative approaches to teaching Shakespeare, we might agree with Lear when questioned by doubting administrators and say, “O, reason not the need!” In the age of data, accountability and the CCSS, we as teachers must justify and quantify. The good news is that we can still push the boundaries of Shakespeare in the classroom using performance and student-created projects while also being able to walk away with useful data that measures achievement and progress.

Josh Cabat is currently serving as Chair of English for the Roslyn (NY) Public Schools. For the preceding decade, he taught English and Film Studies at Roslyn High School in Roslyn New York. Previously, he taught in the New York City public high schools for more than a decade. He was the co-founder of the New York City Student Shakespeare Festival. He has published many articles on Shakespeare and Film in publications such as the English Journal. He earned an MA from the University of Chicago and a BA from Columbia University.