How to design a no opt-out reading assessment

If we’re going to teach whole novels, let’s make the assessments engaging and meaningful.

The assessment, the test, is one of the quintessential aspects of American schooling. The experience of testing reminds me of these quotes:

“Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.”
“High School students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90% of their classes.”

Both of these come from Alexis Wiggins, daughter of the late, great Grant Wiggins, and high school learning coach.  She shared these two observations in a post she wrote after shadowing two students during a typical school day.

In her post, she says that her realizations were not a critique of any teachers but of our shared system of schooling. It is a system in which many students watch teachers or classmates do all the work. They may informally opt-out of their education yet still pass through their classes.

The literature classroom may be suspect number one in this discussion.

Do we allow students to intellectually “opt-out” during activities, discussions, or assessments of reading? Can students earn good grades even if they have not read? This is the culture of fake reading.

To address this problem, we can focus on the book, the reading, and the reader.  In this post, I’ll share a case from my sophomore honors English class as an example of an instance where I’ve tried to design an assessment that encourages opting into deeper reading instead of trying to avoid it.

The book for the unit was Lord of the Flies, selected because I thought all of the students could read it with little scaffolding, its content related to a curricular unit on geography and season in literature, and it begs some interesting questions about human nature.

The reading was based on Ariel Sacks’s Whole Novels approach. This means that:

  1. I introduced the novel, gave students a suggested reading schedule, and set a deadline for finishing the book.
  2. Students made responses throughout the book in the form of asking and proposing answers to their own questions. The topic of these questions was open-ended; they asked questions about topics of interest or connections to our work in class.
  3. We held off on discussing the book formally until students had read all of it. Which means that…
  4. During class, instead of stopping to dissect each chapter, we read supplemental nonfiction and poetry, and students did mini-projects to address literary elements from the book. One example was the character map, pictured below.

A character map created by four of my sophomore English students.

The readers had mixed reactions to the book but became more engaged for the final assessment. This was a mock trial in which William Golding was tried for libel against humanity. This activity that has been written about by other educators, including Jim Burke.

The assessment allowed students to practice these academic and social skills:

  • Collaborating with team members to solve a problem
  • Speaking like an expert in front of peers
  • Writing authentically

How this prevented “opt-out”

Students took roles as lawyers, the author, characters, or Enlightenment philosophers.  They prepared to ask or answer questions during the trial, so they had to anticipate the important moments in the book that lawyers might discuss.

Even if students had not fully engaged in their first draft reading of the book, they were compelled to revisit important parts of the text during their preparation.  Literacy teachers know that re-reading is a valuable strategy for a difficult text, so seeing this re-reading suggested to me that this assessment had value.

The results, teacher perspective

On the day of the trial, students were palpably nervous and excited.  We arranged the room to resemble a court, students read opening statements, and then the lawyers began calling witnesses to the stand.

As students answered unfamiliar questions, asked by their peers, about the novel, it became very clear to me which students had read the book and which hadn’t.

One of my main gripes with the focus on literary analysis in the high school ELA classrooms is that students are masters of completing the assignments without reading. For this assignment, though, students’ reading and comprehension of the text were both much more clear to me.

It’s harder to pretend that you’ve read a book when you are questioning every character about their motivations, asking a philosopher about his perspective on the plot, or acting as one of those aforementioned roles and interpreting the events of the novel.

The results, student perspective

I asked students to share the strengths and weaknesses of this assessment and to compare it to a typical project or test. Here is a selection of their responses:

One of the strengths in this type of assessment is that it allows a student to fully demonstrate their understanding of a book even if they lack knowing some parts.
we were not forced to stare at a paper for 55 minutes or a screen for 1 to 2 hours so it created a memorable experience where everyone was given an equal chance to speak and present their case and ideas. The strengths of a mock trial is that it is a different way of learning that is interactive which enhances an overall learning experience.
I feel like I prepared a lot more for the debate and was a lot more enthusiastic about the trial than I would be about a normal test or quiz.
For tests, many people memorize information but during the mock trial you had to understand the information to do well.
I feel that writing a paper on this topic would have been more effective because this would give each student a chance to share their ideas that they felt strongly about, but did not have a chance to express them when being asked questions right on the spot.
I feel that I learned more through the trial than if I would have written or paper or taken a test because the trial was not about merely restating what happened the book and analyzing its meaning, but rather about getting a full, deep understanding of the novel, and how there could be different interpretations of the text.

So, some students rightfully argued that they did not have as much of an open-ended opportunity to share their thinking about the text as they might have had if we wrote a paper on the novel. Other students suggested that the quality of the discussion of the book led to deeper learning than might have occurred otherwise.

The Takeaways

It was both a whole class reading of a novel and a whole class project, which doesn’t happen too often. Part of the benefits of a whole class text is the classroom community that it can help to build, and this project helped to further emphasize the community aspect of teaching the novel. It might be difficult, but not impossible, to replicate this kind of whole class project if the students had not all read the same novel.

With that said, next time I’d like to integrate a choice reading aspect to this unit. Students could’ve researched and read articles that demonstrate both the good and bad of human nature. That could’ve been an ongoing task throughout the unit for non-fiction independent reading. This would provide more of a balanced literacy experience for the students.

In the closing of her article, Alexis Wiggins says the following:

“I have a lot more respect and empathy for students after just one day of being one again. Teachers work hard, but I now think that conscientious students work harder.”

This experience reminds me that I should design student-centered assessments. Many students are working hard, so let’s have them work hard on things that matter.

Leave a Reply