Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Using In-Class Essays Formatively

In-Class Essay.

The term is enough to send a chill up my spine, even 12 years out of high school.  
I have always preferred to have time to think--to sit and mull before I write.  Having a strict time limit is intimidating to me because I can either get my ideas out onto paper, or I can spend the whole time planning out how I want to write an eloquent, organized essay.  Needing to do both?  Well, let's just say that the very thought puts my blood pressure through the roof.

It is perhaps for this reason that I've always been somewhat leery about using in-class essays as an assessment tool in my class.  Of course, they are inevitable for AP students preparing for the exam, but this seems to be pretty well understood by the students, and anyway, in-class essays are really a drill for AP students, more than anything else.

But what about as a teaching or assessment tool in the average unit in Humanities class?  Might in-class essays have a purpose?

I believe they do, as long as it is clear in both the teacher's mind and the students' minds that the in-class essay is formative--a tool in the learning process to help them grow as writers, or to prepare their thinking for a bigger summative assessment later on.  

This was where my own English teachers had dropped the ball, and where I, myself, have dropped the ball in the past: the weight of an in-class essay needs to be small, and the emphasis needs to be on thinking, not on mechanics, or even organization (unless the purpose of the essay happens to be to workshop those particular skills).

On Monday, my Humanities class started a unit on Agency and Victimhood.  Our unit essay which will be due in December will ask the students to evaluate historical, literary and popular examples of agency against a Biblical definition.  We spent the first day of the unit defining agency and then sharpening the definition by looking at a variety of stories and passages in the Bible.  On Tuesday, I gave the students one class period to write a 200-500 word explanation of agency, incorporating at least 4 passages from Scripture for support.  I told them up front that the in-class essay would only be weighted at 1% of their total writing grade, and that I would only grade them on their supporting details, their use of Scripture, and their commentary--not their thesis or their transitions, not their spelling or their grammar.  

The students were somewhat anxious--a number had not written an in-class essay before.  Yet I was pleased with the results.  Though I had explicitly told the students that I would not grade on whether or not they had a thesis or clear pattern of organization, many of the essays did include these things, which tells me that the students are starting to internalize their thesis-writing skills.

Moreover, it was a great way to very quickly check their understanding so far and to see if the students had tracked with me through our opening discussion of agency.  I was able to catch a handful of students who had not understood and either ran stuck on the essay or had charged boldly in the wrong direction.  Most, however, had tracked fairly well and offered good working definitions of agency.

It did not take me long to grade the class set of essays and provide a sentence or two of feedback, and even the students who had struggled did not drop more than a tenth of a point in the grade-book (plus, I was able to give advice to these students and even had good follow-up conversations with several of them).  The students were able to put their thinking into words, and I am certain that these short essays will play a foundational role as the students begin to write their unit essays in a few weeks.  We will write three more in-class essays in this unit: one on agency and victimhood in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, one on agency and victimhood in feminist literature, and one on agency and victimhood in the reform movements of the 1800s.  It is my hope that with this clearer formative purpose and the emphasis on ideas rather than form, the students will become less anxious about not only timed writing, but also their final unit essay as well!

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