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By Mark Miazga
It’s January 6th and many people are celebrating epiphanies today. In keeping with this theme, I’m sharing with you a life-changing discovery I made in my own classroom: a teaching epiphany.
I teach at a large urban public high school in Baltimore City, and, like many large public high schools, we find ourselves placed under a microscope that examines our students’ scores on externally assessed tests and puts them all over the front page of the newspaper.
My district, my superintendent, and my principal all feel pressure to showcase strong test scores, and, of course, as a classroom instructor, I feel this pressure too. Indeed, my annual evaluation and salary are partially tied to how well my students perform on standardized tests.
Because of this, a few years ago, I began the process of pushing away some of my “fun” activities in class. No more, for example, putting Friar Lawrence on trial in my 9th grade classroom for the deaths of Romeo and Juliet, or acting out all of August Wilson’s Fences in class. There just wasn’t enough time for these “extra and fun” activities anymore; there was too much to do, too many assessments for which to prepare.
But attending the 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library began a shift for me. The institute helped me integrate performance into my classroom in ways that made sense. Afterwards, we weren’t just getting up and acting out scenes from the play anymore; students were engaging in the language and making decisions. Performance began to feel like a component of a well-rounded English classroom.
However, it still took me a couple of years before my true epiphany really hit: it’s that this use of performance wasn’t just a component to a successful English classroom; it could be the major summative assessment for units and is excellent preparation for high stakes tests such as the SAT, AP, IB, and PARCC (Common Core) exams.
Our students, like many, have tended to struggle with difficult reading passages on these rigorous external exams. So assigning students to perform a monologue from Shakespeare, with language just as rigorous as reading passages on the SAT or AP/IB exams, compels them to analyze how the tone is created, to explore the figurative language, to consider diction, and to evaluate the creation and motivation of a character. Performance is understanding, and dissecting the language of a short passage enough to perform it is absolute preparation for high-stakes tests.
And I make the assessment high-stakes in my classroom, too, which I think helps make it a true preparation for these external exams. I have students memorize the monologue, and introduce it to the class with an analysis of Shakespeare’s language, acontextualization of the moment in the play, and then the performance of the monologue.
I do this with both 9th graders who have taken no external tests in high school yet, as well as 12th graders who are set to take the IB exam in May. Sometimes, I will assign this in groups, and, occasionally, will have students write an essay describing their choices. But, in all cases, I’m firm in my belief that this sort of performance assessment — which early in my career, I thought of as “fun and extra” and didn’t prioritize – is the best preparation possible for these high-stakes assessments that our students are challenged with year after year in high school.
Mark Miazga is in his 14th year teaching English and coaching baseball at Baltimore City College High School. He teaches in both the Diploma and Middle Years Programs within the International Baccalaureate and is an IB Examiner. A recipient of the Milken Educator Award in 2014, Mr. Miazga is also a National Board Certified Teacher, a 2008 Teaching Shakespeare Institute scholar, and a 2013 Steinbeck Institute Scholar. He blogs about education matters (and more) at Epiphany in Baltimore (http://epiphanyinbmore.blogspot.com).