Monday, March 21, 2011

Confessions of a Standardized Test Marker

 On Twitter lately, in the educational sphere at least, it seems that nothing is as polarizing as the idea of standardized testing. This is especially prevalent among some of the more vocal tweeps in Alberta, the frozen wasteland of a province that I call home. Is vocal the right word? Tweety? You get it.

Also, maybe polarizing is the wrong word, because no one seems to be on the supportive side of standardized tests. And why should they be? I understand all the reasons against those tests, and I agree with most of them.

And yet, I am a willing participant in standardized testing. And I don't mean in the ubiquitous way, like how all teachers in this province right now who teach grades 3, 6, 9 and 12 know that their students are facing provincial exams at the end the year. I do that too, as responsibly and non-teaching to the test-y as I can. But I do more: I mark diplomas.

This means that for the last 3 years, I've been paid by the government to correct English 30 diplomas, a written exam administered to all grade 12 students at the conclusion of their English 30 course. In Alberta, final exams (referred to as the dread diploma exams) (not really, but it's nice to work in alliteration whenever one can) are worth 50% of the students' final grade, and the exam that I correct is worth 25% of their final grade (the other 25% comes from a 70 question multiple choice exam). The written exam involves writing 2 pieces in 3 hours. Also, students in Alberta must pass their English course to be awarded a high school diploma. It's a pretty textbook definition of high stakes testing. (All this information can be found on the Alberta education website, btw.)

So, twice a year I eagerly- yes, eagerly!- look forward to diploma marking, and have always found the experience thoroughly enjoyable. Who wouldn't love the opportunity to get away from our classrooms to meet with like minded teachers twice a year? We joke about texts, we giggle over innocently misplaced typos, we ruminate on the different effects of a well placed semi-colon. Where else can you get into a lunchtime discussion over the significance of homosexuality in Paul's Case? Or discuss all the possible interpretations of Gertude's character from Hamlet? Or laugh hysterically about that one time you taught Oedipus in class and a student asked point blank: "So are you saying that this guy was literally a mother****er?" Seriously, this is an English teacher geek's dream come true, and I regularly refer to it as the best professional development I get all year. 

So there you go: the test markers in Alberta are English teachers. We're not robots. We're not evil. Some of us wear trendy scarves on the marking floor and others wear sweatpants. Some of us live in Edmonton and others drive up (or down) from as far as 5 hours away and spend the weeknights in a hotel room. We take the job very seriously: we're not ignoring the fact that the essay we're correcting belongs to a living, breathing, valuable and creative human being. We care about "our kids". Yet we remain complicit in what so many educators and educational writers consider the greatest evil since something really evil that happened prior to this one. (Yes Taylor Mali, speak with authority, I know).

So, here's what's been nagging at me: when I go mark these exams, am I doing something wrong? Morally, I mean. Or do I mean ethically? Or is that initial question far too simplistic for the situation that education has written itself into? I've come to understand lately that the ultimate defiance of a system involves the rejection of it, but how is that possible as long as I teach grade 12 English in Alberta? Isn't it as useful to learn the rules of the system as well as I can in order to figure out how to work around them?

I don't think the answers to these questions are as simple as yes or no. Or I'm hoping not.  Frankly, after reading this article, I'm thankful that I teach in Alberta: at least here we acknowledge the importance of test markers being an expert in what text they are correcting. (If I haven't taught it in the last year, I can't correct it. No essays on Othello for me!)

On one side, I value what I bring back to my students after a marking session; I value the collaboration that these sessions offer; and I value the community of English teachers that I feel quite lucky to be a part of. I fully intend to mark diplomas for as long as they will have me. But on the problem side: I mark test after nameless test, judging the writing ability of these students as if it were the same as thinking ability, punishing them for mistakes made under duress, and knowingly contributing to a grading system that insists on taking the thoughts, ideas and values of my students and using them to produce a neat little bell curve.

My Papa, as he is called, used to have a poster on his classroom wall that asked "Are you part of the solution? Or part of the problem?"

Damn you, rhetorical poster!!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Lesson as an Obstacle

So, I'm taking this class about curriculum as part of a master's degree. Besides the icy shock of being plunged back into the role of student, the experience is incredibly broadening: both horizon wise, as well as my hips in relation to how much snack food I put away while trying to complete these 1000-something word papers that keep getting thrown at me.

Anyway, inspired by this class, I've been trying to be more mindful of the metaphors we use in teaching and their effects on how we think about the profession. It's nothing surprising really, but still worth reflecting on.

The lesson as an obstacle

"I have to get through this"
"We'll go over this quickly"
"Let's just get past this part and we'll do something else"

I use these phrases in class really often, actually, or I did. Then I realized that by using those phrases I was implying (and probably believing) that my own lesson was getting in my way.

It seems strange that the activities or concepts we bring to a lesson lose their importance once they leave the 'plan' stage and get put into practice. (That's called praxis, isn't it? Educated!) But it's at that stage that they become objects- specifically, an obstacle to get on the other side of.

And our language is full of this- it's almost impossible to get away from. After all, as I am reminded nearly every class, the word curriculum comes from the latin word currerre, which means to run. Run to where? And by the time we get to high school, most of us start referring to our classes as courses. I haven't seen the movie "Race to Nowhere" yet, but I imagine it's title refers to this phenomenon as well.

The problem, I think, with this problem, is that in class, in our lessons and lesson plans, the goal is the end. And what awaits as at 'the end'? It's the test, the summative or formative or whateverative evaluation that we have to get to. But I don't believe that schools are where kids go to get tested, I've never believed that. I didn't become a teacher because of my undying passion for marking- if anything, the undying marking will the reason for my leaving the profession and following my other dream of becoming a mid-afternoon baker.

So, if schools aren't where kids go to get tested, the language indicates that school is where kids go to run. And as a teacher, that's what I teach: I teach them how to run. Not to run around the lesson, or over or under it, but to run with it- on it. The lessons aren't the obstacle, they are the track.

Question mark?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Macbeth: it grew on me like a fungus.

A blog post just for you, Ms. Bayles!

Ok, so here is the slapdashiest of slapdash lists. The subject: things I've done with Macbeth.

Subheading: This is just a list of what works for me and is not intended to patronize or repeat the obvious, though it will likely do both.

  •  I normally use Macbeth as an excuse to check my horoscope in class. I like this site because instead of reading a paragraph for each sign, it breaks the horoscope down into a bar graph format for quicker comparison.
(The reason I use horoscopes is that it's a good place to lead into a discussion about determination and mysticism. There are so many different takes on what the witches in Macbeth actually represent, whether they are real, how malevolent they are, whether or not they were responsible for the 3rd murderer that allowed Fleance to escape, etc. I use the horoscope idea to play with the suggestion that with or without the witches' prophecies, the decision to act was Macbeth's and his alone. And to check my daily intellect level, 'cause that is totally based on the stars and not my intake of sleep and/or coffee.)

  • If you have a theatre background you likely already know about the bad-luck-to-say-Macbeth-in-the-theatre thing. If not, it's not a bad way to start a lesson. There are lots of examples of Macbeth's curse and its ill effects online. Trivia, you know.
  •  OMG- this is the best rap ever. For Macbeth, I mean. I usually show it to the kids before the 3 apparitions bit, cause they can connect with the mentions of the first 3 acts and then the rest is like pre-reading. And the hook seriously gets stuck in your head. 
  •  I hope it's not patronizing to mention here that I usually bring up the fact that King James was Scottish and so the play was Scottish and that King James was into witches, and so Shakespeare put in witches, and King James published the King James bible during Shakespeare's lifetime and if you look up Psalm 46 and count 46 words from the beginning, you get the word "shake" and then 46 words from the end you get "spear". More trivia, but there are worse things. Are there worse things? Anyway, for me the King James conversation comes up late in the play, after the witches show! show! show! him the 3 visions and he demands the 4th, which is the line of 8 Kings that were likely make up to look like King James. King James!
  • Oh yeah, don't forget to use a map. It's fun to find these places on a map, even if Shakespeare himself never really went there. I find that the smartboard in my classroom comes in handy for this because I can call up a realistic map of Scotland and use pictures of the characters * to move around. I find this makes it easier to explain the minor but potentially confusing details like Scone, Northumberland and Fife.
* Another silly but fun activity is asking students to cast actors of their choosing for the major the roles. Admittedly, the conversation begins with a list of dreamy or hot people, but once the students (and myself) get that their (our) systems, it's a place to start considering the different aspects of Macbeth's character as well as actor range. I usually do this via an online discussion board so that students can post pictures of the actors they are thinking of, as well as search for actors that they don't immediately know the names of.

  • Oh yeah, and this may seem simplistic, but when we get to the Bloody Soldier's speech in Act 1, scene 2 and he gets going about the 'unseam'd him from the nave to the chaps', I always use a sword (I went out and bought a styrofoam one after breaking my meter stick) to kind of highlight the whole 'unseam'd' business. Something about the idea of a smoking bloody sword and a man's guts spilling out from a cut in his belly really seems to get kids sitting on the edge of their seats. Or bolting to the bathroom to throw up, you know, whatever. Engagement!


I always use films with Shakespeare. I'm of the school that likes to approach the play as a play, not just a story, and to me plays were meant to be watched. So much of Shakespeare is lost with the absence of stage direction, blocking, expression, so filmed versions really help to fill that part of the play out.

Normally, I switch between versions as we go, not showing the same scene more than once, with the exception of the Banquet scene with Banquo's ghost. For that scene I show usually 3 different versions, some with the ghost and some without, which is a nice starting point for students to talk about what's more effective.

I remember asking a wiser, more experienced teacher what he thought of that and he told me to can it because then my students would be stuck with that one interpretation in their collective heads forever, instead of what the author intended. So, I show multiple versions to highlight the idea of interpretation. And honestly, I'd rather have something stuck in those heads.

  • The Sam Worthington version is full of potential and is a good enough looking film, but it cuts a lot of text out and every visit from the witches (3 schoolgirls in this version) results in an out and out orgy. Titilating, definely; appropriate for 15 years olds, less so. Past my comfort zone anyway. There's one neat detail with the "Is this a dagger" bit where he grabs at a shadow and it's a fern or something, but it's pretty short lived. I guess it's alright though for highlight context and seeing how long it takes for someone to say, "Hey, that's the guy from Avatar!" Simple pleasures.
  • The Roman Polanski version: naked witches; a real life example of the curse; a banquet scene that is at once disturbing and clear, and a final battle scene that never fails to get laughs, but does a good job illustrating what fighting in armor was probably really like. Incidentally, I also use that final battle scene to point out to students how prevalent cuts are in modern action sequences. But I'd never show the film from beginning to end.
  • The Trevor Nunn movie, or as I like to call it, the you-probably-had-to-be-there version. It's always a pleasure to watch Shakespearean Ian McKellan and Judi Dench, but this film is not a film, it's a play on screen. You'd think that would be exactly what I was looking for, but I truly feel that this film works best for people who are familiar with the play already, as in, teachers. Or actors, I suppose. Don't get me wrong, there are a few treats: the drool in the banquet scene, Judi Dench's ear piercing wail in the sleepwalking scene, and I actually find the exchange between Malcolm and Macduff in this film pretty endearing. But overall, I would never show this film from beginning to end.
  • Just discovered the Patrick Stewart film, which is actually stored in its entirety online. I think this is a filmed version of the Broadway production, and the fact that I'm totally a Star Trek the Next Generation geek has nothing to do with the fact that this is my favourite one. But I think Picard, I mean Stewart, brings a kind of worn desperation to the role that I haven't seen before, as well as a wicked moustache. The parts with the witches in this one are a little different though, but not sexualized, and that's how I interpret the play personally. (As in, if I have to watch one more witch scream 'Double! Double!' in orgasmic delight, I'm switching to Romeo and Juliet- and I mean it this time.)
  • There's another version with Nichol Willamson version of Hamlet that I've only ever seen clips of on YouTube. From the little of it I've seen, it's a decent version: I've shown both the banquet scene and the sleepwalking scene.
Other stuff
  • Lady Macbeth's "Out Damn Spot" bit, by this point in the play I find students are getting into the routine of watching the film (as in, heads down and napping) so I try to show this speech from a different perspective by showing a clip from Verdi's opera. I used to show this one, because of the captions. That made sense back when I worked in a French Immersion school. It may also help that I'm an opera fan.
  • Anyway, there are trillions of ways to teach Macbeth. I know one teacher who actually hosts a banquet with his students for the banquet scene (Marshall, are you out there?), though I'm not sure if he invites a ghost or how that works. Sounds fun though.
  • Something I tried once when I was student teaching was reserving Fridays for performance days. We'd rearrange the desks into an Elizabethan theatre shape, and kids would draw cards to see who would be groundlings, who would be nobles and who would be royalty. Royalty got comfy chairs to sit in, and (for a while) we played the game that whenever a royal would stand up, so did everyone else, a la Hallelujah Chorus. For obvious reasons, this game did not last. But they still got the best seats; nobles got to sit at desks towards the back and groundlings had to sit in chairs, or on the floor, depending on what we were doing. Anyway, these performances would range in goodness (and relevance) from students reciting lines like rap songs, showing pictures of images in the language, performing scenes that were transported to different settings, etc. 

So, these are all activity suggestions, not really teaching suggestions, if you know what I mean. I could (and likely will) (and sometimes do) (k, often do) wax poetic about the thematic poignancy, relevance, horror and thrill of what Macbeth has to offer, but not today. I will tell you this though: every time I teach Macbeth, I never fail to quote Laura Ingalls Wilder: "Ambition is a good servant but a bad master." The beauty of that quote is that it works for any theme, really. Another reason to read Little House on the Prairie, as if we needed one.

Last, I think it may be worth mentioning that for the first few years of teaching, I hated Macbeth. Hated it. Hated. But it grew on me, it did. Like a fungus. Or a rash.