Saturday, February 6, 2010

Shakespeare, Anyone?

This past week was finals week--yes, it’s February!  In addition to giving five finals,  I started a new semester at my other job, where I teach two classes (all boys, 9th and 12th grade), caught a mean and nasty cold, nailed down some details for a trip my students and I are taking to NY in spring, and along with several of my dedicated colleagues, I hosted a Shakespeare recitation contest. Because this contest has an essay component, I also had asked several of my Shakespeare students to polish recent Hamlet essays for submission. Then after spending what amounted to fruitless time searching the internet for the essay entry form, I discovered that the sponsors of the contest have canceled the essay portion of the program. Hmmm, what to do. 
Not wanting to disappoint the kids who retooled their work in hopes of some recognition other than mine for their efforts, I got to thinking. What if my school hosted a contest of its own? We could meet all departmental directives by looking at and assessing student work together AND we could reward a kid in the process. Since most of the English faculty teach at least one of the plays or the sonnets and all of us are supposed to be teaching how to write essays and all of us are oppressed by the mind-numbing standardized assessments and want to assess what we ARE teaching, I suggested we look at the Shakespeare essays we ourselves have assigned at the first full meeting of the year, but I added that we could wait until a meeting where more of us have some essays to contribute and examine. We don’t need a class set for this meeting work, but we can at least look at a few of the pieces the kids are proud of--after all we want to instill the notion of pride in their work, right? I mean, I really thought this would be a good idea, so this is what I sent out to my colleagues:
"Hello Everyone,
I normally submit student essays about Shakespeare to [I am leaving out the name], and after gathering a few edited pieces for submission,  I discovered, much to my dismay, that they are NOT having their contest anymore.
Then it occurred to me, why not have a contest here?  Since many of us teach Shakespeare in some form or another, let's nurture the best essays of our students, take the names off the essays and insure that they follow MLA manuscript format for objectivity, and in our next full faculty meeting (or one of our faculty meetings if we have no essays yet), let's read them, assess them, and pick the top three; and the best part is we can give the kids stuff for winning!

My thought is that we will look for intelligent and thinking responses, even though the power of the actual writing may vary widely, and with enough of us just reading and discussing the essays, we will be doing work in keeping with the goal of coming up with our own deparment-wide assessments and honing our collective vision of what we expect from our students.
We can either have one winner and two runners up and ALL of us read the essays and ALL of us discuss our thoughts; or we can give two awards--an upperclassman winner (12th only, since 11th is American Lit) and an underclassman winner (9th and 10th)--and read the essays in grade-level groups. 
This could be fun, and it may refresh our ongoing discussion of good student writing.
I will find some money to buy a [leaving out the prize I will give] for whoever wins. Let me know what you think. . . ."
Now while I realize that we are being impacted by dramatically increased class size, potentially devastating pay cuts, and other hideous fallout from a collapsing district, I was not really asking anyone to do any extra work. I thought we would just have the kids polish the work they would normally do for our classes, then we’d have a look and a little chat (thank you, Heidi Klum).  A few of my colleagues saw it another way:
One admired my enthusiasm. . . .then explained that he was feeling too overburdened by teaching responsibilities and concurrent pay cuts. Another accused me of using this potential contest as a departmental directive and was clearly angry that I had not discussed it with the faculty first, even though I plainly stated that I was interested in hearing the department's thoughts about this contest. And yet another argued that not everyone teaches Shakespeare and added that I am the only one who teaches Shakespeare to the degree needed for a contest, so it would be inherently unfair. My suggestion that we look at student responses to Shakespeare was either patently ignored or treated like a malignant request for teachers to do extra work--in a time of pay-cuts, no less. 
LESSON I AM SUPPOSED TO LEARN: How could I suggest something so preposterous? After all, we already examine student work on those benchmark tests that ask students to write about "informational texts" that discuss the value of video games. 
LESSON LEARNED: I am going to have my own Shakespeare contest and will submit the students’ essays to the professors with whom I have worked at university for their candid assessment (and, I am hopeful, their approval). This kind of evaluation could lead to a great lesson for my students and for me. Should have just done that in the first place! What was I thinking?