Why Can't Assessments Be Joyful? - Steve Barkley

Why Can’t Assessments Be Joyful?

Since having recorded a podcast with Alexis Wiggins, I have been subscribed to her newsletter at the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning. As soon as I finished reading the Winter 2024 Newsletter, I asked Alexis if she would share it here.

Alexis Wiggins is the founder and director of CEEL – the Cohort of Educators for Essential Learning. She has worked for over 20 years as a teacher and instructional coach in the U.S., Spain, the Middle East, and Asia. Her book, The Best Class You Never Taught: How Spider Web Discussion Can Turn Students into Learning Leaders (ASCD), explores how to transform classrooms and schools through high-level, student-led inquiry. She is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning at The John Cooper School in The Woodlands, TX (USA).

I was asked to teach a new course this year — a twelfth-grade Senior English course titled “Nonfiction” — and I have been working hard this fall to craft the course by designing reading lists, Essential Questions, unit topics, and assessments that both appeal to my students’ interests and challenge their skills and thinking in new ways. I very much enjoy the creative act of designing curriculum and assessment, and this year has got me thinking about how we educators should go about designing curriculum, units, and assessments for both challenge and joy.

Yes, joy.

I’m a high-school teacher by trade (though I dabbled in middle school for a few years — you MS folks have my utmost respect!), and I found that too often the joy of learning dissipates over the years so that, by seventh or eighth grade (or much earlier!), students are complaining about all the tests, papers, standardized testing, and projects they have without experiencing much of the joy of learning that they did in their early childhood years.

Why shouldn’t learning be joyful? And why shouldn’t assessment be joyful?

I’m not trying to sound pollyanna; I believe in rigor and challenge; I believe in preparation for the next grade level, for college, and for the workplace; I believe that “fun” projects that aren’t grounded in clear, transferable learning goals are not a good use of anyone’s time, despite how enjoyable they may be.

But what’s wrong with pairing joy and challenge on a more regular basis, especially when it comes to assessment? This is just what I set out to do with the blank slate of my new Nonfiction course this year. For example, the final exam.

For their final exam, I wanted to incorporate all that we’d learned in the first semester — but I wanted to do so in a way that was challenging, engaging, and unique. Thanks to the New York Times Learning Network’s 2023 contest for students ages 13 and up, I got the idea for the students to write, edit, and produce their own podcast on the topic of immigration. Here is my Podcast Exam Project with all the details, resources, and rubric.

When I polled the students prior to exams and asked them if they’d prefer a sit-down, timed essay exam or the podcast project, the majority of them said they preferred the sit-down essay. I was surprised. Surely, they’d love the creative freedom and “joyful” nature of this out-of-the-box assignment? Nope. One student summed it up for her peers with a frown: “The podcast is harder.”

Ah, yes. It was more challenging for them to get out into the community, interview real people, and edit it into a compelling audio story in 5 minutes or less. I could see the challenge, but could they see the joy?

Once exam day came, however, I was wowed with the results, and so were many of the students. A couple podcasts stood out as highly professional, and all will be eligible to submit their project to the New York Times 2024 contest later this spring. When polled again, after the presentations were finished, all but one student said they preferred the podcast project to a traditional exam.

Buoyed by my experiments with joyful challenge in the fall, I’m leaning in this spring. This semester, as my seniors begin their final semester of high school, we are shifting our focus to food writing, cooking, and gastronomy. The students’ textbook is a cookbook. We’re watching documentary films, like Netflix’s Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. We’re reading articles on the science of food and nutrition, like one on ultra-processed foods and one on nutrition tips for the New Year. We’re delving into the world of critics, reading several restaurant reviews, like this legendary Pete Wells review of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant.

For their assessments, students will have a series of Spider Web Discussions to discuss texts, they will write four persuasive “synthesis” essays, using a variety of our texts as evidence, and they will complete their very own cooking and multimedia Chef Project.

Additionally, I’ve arranged for some guest speakers, including local chefs who have volunteered to come in and teach the students pastry-making and molecular gastronomy.

It’s exciting to come to class every day because the content is engaging, unique, and enjoyable for all of us. While it’s clear that not every course in every school can be designed with this much freedom, surely we educators can all find ways to incorporate more “challenging joy” into the texts we select and the assessments we design for our students, whether they are age 8 or 18.

Thank you, Alexis. Readers can sign up for the CEEL Newsletter here.

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