Today I had another obvious breakthrough as a teacher. I just finished teaching The Great Gatsby again, and I love it each and every time I do. However, the assessments that we have come up with are usually duds and make me dread the grading part of the whole equation.
One thing that I struggle with is essay writing prompts. When my colleagues and I develop an assessment for literature, it usually involves some kind of prompt, but often these are convoluted and we try to force students to think inside of a box. For example, “Discuss how Fitzgerald embodies the American Dream and how the novel relates to modernism…” Sometimes I read these prompts and think, “I don’t even know how I would write that essay!”
So, this year I decided to try something different. My students meet in an eighty-minute double mod, so we spent the first half having a graded discussion. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, the idea is that students bring prepared questions and responses and then discuss them with other students in a large group or in small groups. The teacher assesses the discussion through observation and self-evaluations. It’s a pretty cool and authentic method for summative assessment.
They came with open-ended prepared questions. My favorite was, “Pick a part of the book you didn’t really understand and share it with the rest of the group.” This led to students reading tough parts of the book aloud, and then coming to terms with the ideas. As I listened to these discussions, I found myself becoming engaged. They were dealing with challenging passages, and really working to figure them out. One group tried to determine why it was “unutterable” for Nick to tell Tom that Daisy was driving the car. They couldn’t come up with an answer, so I threw the question to another group, and they had an active, lively discussion. The energy was palpable.
Then, once their brains were buzzing we switched gears to a silent, on-demand essay response. I let them use their discussion notes, but no books. The topics were simple and direct. I gave them a choice between two of the following:
1. Defend or Refute the statement: The Great Gatsby should be taught to high school students.
2. Defend or Refute: Reading this novel changed my view of wealth in society.
3. Defend or Refute: Nick said that “Gatsby turned out all right in the end…” (6). Did Gatsby turn out “all right?”
4. Defend or Refute: The character of Gatsby is a good example of the American Dream.
I put the choices on the overhead, and I could just feel the tension in the room. I especially liked #3, and I told them to give me HONEST responses.
When I got to school the next day, i was actually giddy and anxious to read what students had written. I wasn’t dreading the stack of essays that would normally all be relatively plagiaristic, formulaic, pandering, and dull. Instead, I was looking forward to seeing which side students would choose and how they would defend their choices.
I am hoping the results match my expectations. I have read two essays already, and I joyfully discovered why students do think the book should be taught. I can’t wait to read the rest.