In NY, our middle school students seem to be tested continuously: MAP testing, pre-assessment, SLOs, post-assessment, state tests. These are bureaucratically imposed assessments that we cannot control. So, once in a while, when we reach the end of a class novel, I try to mix it up a little with something other than an objective test and/or an essay test. These assessments are multi-layered and ideal for differentiation, which gives every student the chance to experience the thrill of victory. I try to work in some room for creativity as well by addressing the strengths of individual classes. But make no mistake, the assessments I ask my pupils to complete are demanding and require intimate interaction with the text. I have used variations on the culminating activity outlined below with almost every novel I have read with middle school students.
A few words of caution: Unlike more traditional tests that eat up only one or two instructional periods, your class will need a significant block of time to work through the assignments designed for this culminating activity. It is also more work for both teacher and students. However, it has been my experience that this work is meaningful to kids because they feel a sense of ownership. This assessment consists of a series of ten activities that address plot, setting, characterization, conflict and theme as well as point of view. It also promotes close reading as required by the Common Core because students must locate, incorporate and paraphrase relevant text-based details in each assignment.
Basic Premise: For the duration of the assessment, students assume the identify of one of the characters in the novel. They are free to choose any character except a first person narrator. Each of the ten activities is subsequently completed from this character’s point of view. There is wiggle room for creativity, but the bottom line is that everything must be consistent with the novel and every entry must be supported by specific details from the text. Though I vary these activities based on the kids in my classes, those listed below have been reliable favorites. Design your rubric to meet the needs and past practices in your classroom. I have used a rubric that addresses each of the ten tasks individually and I have used a more holistic 4 point rubric. Both ways of evaluating student work have worked well.
Activity # 1: Introducing…students write a two page introduction. They tell readers about “themselves:” who they are, where they live, what they do. Students must use the text to support this introduction, but they are cautioned not to copy from the book. I encouraged writers to find a voice by channeling the character they have chosen. In the past, I have also used a mock Facebook profile template, but kids recently seem less interested in FB than in previous years.
Activity # 2: Five (5) Questions I Wish I Had Been Able to Ask. In this activity, students formulate five questions about things or people in the novel that their character would have wanted answers to. This is more challenging than it might appear. To do this well, kids have to know their characters. Kids should be encouraged to do more than ask “what if” plot-driven questions. Instead, I try to get kids to think about the ways in which their characters have interacted with others throughout the novel. They are expected to write clear questions, describe the context of the questions and explain why they wanted to ask this.
Activity # 3: Auto-Bio Poem This assignment directs students to write a poem of at least 14 lines about the characters they have selected to become. This simultaneously demonstrates understanding of characterization and serves as a mini poetry review. Students must incorporate at least three different literary devices (for example: figurative language, rhyme, allusion, flashback, onomatopoeia). Every year that I have used this activity, I have a couple of talented visual artists who illustrate their poems.
Activity # 4: That’s What I Said. Students find and recopy the three most important things they say in the course of the novel.This assignment forces kids to revisit the text with an eye for the ways indirect characterization is achieved through dialogue. Then they must paraphrase and explain why this sound byte is important. They are expected to explain these passages in the context of the whole book.
Activity # 5: The Best/Worst Things About Where I Live. Students explain the best and worst features of the setting. They must identify the time and place and then, using text-based specifics, they are required to develop a supported discussion about the positive and negative aspects of life in this setting. If the kids in any given section are interested, I sometimes add a visual component here and let them draw the setting as part of this activity.
Activity # 6: The Character I Like Least. This assignment forces kids to confront the character who is conflict with the character they have opted to become. Ideally, this leads students to examine the antagonist. They must first completely describe this character and then they have to explain why this person is not likable to them. Again, they are expected to be using text-based specifics in support of a developed discussion.
Activity # 7: If I had a Do-Over Students cite one action they wish they could take back or change in some way. They describe what actually happened in the book and then describe how/why they would do things differently now that they know how things turned out.
Activity # 8: The Most Important Event From their characters’ perspectives, students describe the most significant event in the novel and defend this choice, explaining how this event is a key element in the novel.
Activity # 9: What I Have Learned. Characters change over the course of the novel and this necessarily leads to central meaning. Students examine theme through the eyes of the character they have become.
Activity # 10: Judge Me By My Cover Students design a cover on the manila folder that will hold their work. This work need not be museum quality art. It should be consistent with what is inside the folder, however, and consistent with the novel itself. After kids are done, I let them punch holes in the folder and they secure their work with paper fasteners and it becomes a booklet.
Note: Any/all of these activities can be differentiated to meet the needs of a heterogeneously grouped classroom.
Materials: a completed class novel, manila folders for each student, assignment sheets for each activity, a scoring rubric
Day 1: I open by telling kids this is in lieu of a traditional test, that they won’t have to “study’ to ace this assessment. They always cheer at this point. I also tell them that every single person in the room can earn a top score because the assessment is completely within their control. More cheers. I tell them that with effort, they will be able to show off what they know about the book we have just finished. Cheering continues. That’s when I slip in the warning that this might be a little more work. I usually start with a broad explanation of the assessment, review the rubric and typically, there is time to let kids get started. I remind them that this is their work and as such, it should be something they proudly put their names to. I also set a tentative due date. You can always push it back if kids seem to need more time, but having an established and posted due date keeps this from becoming an unending project.
Day 2- ? I usually work through one activity at a time, using class time for kids to write and conference with me and with each other if they want. I encourage them to draft in class and redraft as homework. Typically, I collect and grade all drafts as quizzes. I conference with kids while the class is working. Kids can then draft a third time using the comments as guidelines.