I know I am not alone in the engagement challenge. In a world where my students can stream fist fights or stand-up comedians, how do we get them to care about what’s going on in our little classrooms? It’s hard to compete with the endless content that students can get on their phones, or even the sleep they could get napping on their desks. Yet, somehow we want them to feel like everyday at school there is something big at stake.
I mean, we know that this is true. Every day of learning can make a huge impact on a student’s life. It’s getting them to see this truth that is difficult.
Enter, the authentic assessment.
This past week I had the pleasure of being involved in two different authentic assessments–one in my own classroom, and one in a colleague’s. Before I get too deep here, I want to quickly address how my school defines “authentic assessments.” Increasing the authenticity of our classroom activities is a school-wide goal for us, and they generally include real-world applicability, an audience other than their everyday teacher, and some kind of hands-on component.
In both of the authentic assessments I took part in this past week, there was a nervous energy around the students. They cared about their performance. During the process, you could see the confidence gained and how proud they were of themselves for completing the task.
I’ll focus on the example in my colleague’s leadership class. For his final exam, his students had to make a speech about the person who had impacted them most during their life. The speech was only two minutes, but it had all the components of an authentic assessment.
First, it was a real-world task.
Students know that important people make speeches. They’ve seen Ted Talks. They know that in business, they will have to speak in front of others. Making the connection between this assignment and the world after high school is not much of a leap.
Secondly, they had an audience other than their everyday classmates and teacher.
During their final exam period, teachers on prep and support staff were invited to come in and watch (which is how I ended up having the privilege to watch these young people speak).
Third, the component was hands-on.
All students were given the option to use an outline (you could see the regret on the faces of those who had decided to skip that tool), but were ultimately expected to speak smoothly and freely which meant no reading straight from the page.
If you’re authentic assessment takes place in the classroom, I also encourage you to modify the room for the event. Changing students’ everyday setting helps them realize that this task is different and elevated from their normal routine. It makes things a bit more “real” in my opinion.
For the speeches, the teacher had reorganized the classroom to create staging area. He had also set each place at a table with snacks, treats, and drinks to be served family style. The first ten minutes or so students and staff chatted and snacked together. Students reviewed their outlines and shared their nervousness while the staff gave them words of encouragement.
When the speeches began, they were powerful!
Clearly, some students were better prepared than others, and some were more comfortable speaking in front of others. But the stories they shared in just two minutes were incredible. I won’t forget the student who was grateful to his father for always working hard for his family, even when the student and his parents were living together in a van. Another student told about the time his family had no food and no electricity, so he stole a frozen pizza from the corner store and cooked it over a bonfire to feed his siblings. Some students got teary-eyes talking about the support they receive from friends and classmates.
Not only were the speakers engaged during their speech, but their classmates were fully immersed in the stories their peers shared. Those students won’t forget sharing that part of themselves, and no one in the audience will forget either.
An experience like that will always be much more memorable than any test or essay.
Not only did students have meet the standards for speaking and listening and do some writing, but most of them face a real fear of speaking and sharing in front of others. And now they know they can do something that before would have seemed impossible.
This is what engagement looks like. Students’ hearts were beating quickly. They were nervous, and there was a lot of fidgeting. When it was over, they congratulated and praised one another. They smiled. Students had pride in the task that they accomplished.
There were no cell phones. There were no side conversations. Yes, much of this had to do with the positive classroom culture that had been created over the course of the whole quarter, but their eyes weren’t glazed over either.
So how can you create powerful and authentic moments like this in your classroom?
Finding that “real-world” task always seem daunting to me at first, but it can much easier than we initially think. Submitting writing to a contest is a real-world activity with an authentic audience and real stakes. Writing letters about important issue and sending them is another way. Remember the power of reading and writing; how can your students use it in a meaningful way right now?
The other authentic assessment I worked on this past week was my The Hate U Give classroom discussion. Discussions are very real-world–they happen every day, at parties, at work, on the bus, etc. I bring in other adults–teachers, guidance counselors, the librarian, my instructional coach–to discuss with students at small round tables. I decorate our desks with table cloths and place-cards and bring in snacks for students and staff to eat while discussing the novel. Students must support their thoughts with quotes and examples from the book which they collect by close reading the novel as we go through it during the quarter.
You can purchase that assignment here.
Whatever you decide to do with your students, remember to include that real-world applicability, an authentic audience, and a hands-on task. I can’t guarantee that everything will be smooth and perfect; these are long term projects for both the students and you. They take some time to set up. However, I can guarantee that the effort and experience will be ones that neither you nor your students will forget.
What authentic assessments do you do in your classroom? Drop some ideas in the comments below!