Assessing Learning

Exploring an ideaI had an idea today, and I decided to try it out and see if it would work.

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy to construct assessments for students, but I don’t think students have ever heard of it. I know I never thought to share it with students. And why not? It’s not a great big secret.

We finished studying Macbeth in one of my classes, and so I decided to let the students essentially create the test, which is not a novel idea. Other folks have done that. What I did, however, was share the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the students and ask them to think of questions that they felt addressed each level. We began with remembering or knowledge and reached analysis before the period ended and we had to table the discussion for tomorrow. Here are some of the questions the students came up with in the level of Bloom’s that the students placed them:

Knowledge/Remembering

  • How many witches?
  • What happened in the play?
  • Describe the setting of the play.

Comprehension

  • How is Lady Macbeth the more dominant partner in the relationship?
  • How should an actor interpret a given passage of the play?
  • Give examples of how Macbeth misinterprets the witches’ prophecies.
  • Explain how Macbeth changes over the course of the play.

Application

  • Show how Macbeth is still relevant to a modern audience (Why do we study it? What can it teach us?)
  • Show how Macbeth is similar to a modern teenager.

Analysis

  • Compare how Macbeth felt after killing Duncan to how he felt after having Banquo and the Macduffs murdered.
  • Why did Macbeth kill Duncan? Banquo? The Macduffs?
  • Why did Macbeth listen to the witches?

I think some of these questions are really good and really interesting. I’m not generally a fan of using the lower level questions, and in my mind it is those few knowledge/comprehension questions that are weakest. Beyond identifying how many witches are in the play, it might be more interesting why there are three witches instead of two or four, for instance. I might also have placed some of their questions in other categories. For instance, I think the question about Lady Macbeth’s dominance is more of an analysis question than a comprehension question. Same with the question about Macbeth changing over the course of the play.

Some of their higher order questions are questions I wouldn’t have thought of—showing how Macbeth is like a modern teenager (they mentioned “peer pressure”). I really like the question about why Macbeth listens to the witches.

It was a good assessment of my teaching to hear what the students were telling me they had learned from studying the play. I think it will be interesting to see the assessment that they craft—the assessment that will tell me what they consider important and worth assessing about their study of Macbeth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JJay

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But Thence I Learn, and Find the Lesson True

Double Double Toil and Trouble...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said “Shakespeare knew the human mind, and its most minute and intimate workings, and he never introduces a word, or a thought, in vain or out of place; if we do not understand him, it is our own fault.” Harold Bloom credits Shakespeare with inventing humanity. Certainly there is no writer I enjoy teaching more than Shakespeare. Part of what makes Shakespeare special is the way that people from all walks of life can find themselves in his works and can connect their own lives to those of characters created hundreds of years ago. One of the more compelling stories I’ve heard regarding Shakespeare’s ability to impact lives is that of Prison Performing Arts, an organization I’ve discussed before. If you aren’t familiar with their work, please listen to this episode of This American Life and come back. I will wait. You must hear it.

Anyone who has ever listened to that program can never forget James Word, the man who played Laertes and credits Prison Performing Arts with helping him “see options” and to express himself. He says that “The delivery of the message, through Shakespeare and mythology, taught me life’s lessons.” I receive a newsletter from Prison Performing Arts as a supporter of their organization, and in the recent issue, Ann Haubrich has written an update on James Word. He has been released from prison and is attending college full time. He mentioned earning an A on his first English paper, which absolutely thrilled me to learn, and he discussed his desire to start a theater program for young people at his father’s church. As Word says, “If you can catch them while they’re young, before they get sent to prison, they can recognize their potential and be saved.”

It may sound idealistic, but it obviously works. Prison Performing Arts works with people that most of society has given up on, and it’s encouraging to read about their successes. I came home to find this letter in my mailbox after a great day teaching Shakespeare. My students have finished Act 1 of Macbeth, and I gave them a quiz over Act 1 from Shakespeare Set Free Volume 1. I read an article in the September 2010 issue of English Journal by Timothy Quinn and Todd Eckerson about collaborative reading quizzes. I applied this strategy to this quiz over Act 1. The students talked about each of the quotes and came to a consensus about who said the lines, to whom the speaker was speaking, and what the context of the quote was. Both of my classes earned perfect scores on the quiz. Obviously, it means that the methods in the Shakespeare Set Free unit work for helping students remember the language and learn the story. If you could have been a fly on the wall listening to my students talking about the play, I think you’d have enjoyed their discussion. It was especially interesting to hear them figure out when they were initially mistaken about a quote and discuss it. I never said a word. They conducted the discussion and reached the answers on their own.

I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach Shakespeare to my students. Shakespeare belongs to everybody, from prison inmates to Jewish high school students. As Ben Jonson observed, “He was not of an age, but for all time.” His ability to teach us about ourselves, and the richness of his language and his themes never grow old. To paraphrase Domitius Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, “Age cannot wither [him], nor custom stale / [His] infinite variety.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arbron

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“To End Where I Begun”: Backward Design and Shakespeare

I am presenting at NCTE tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Yacht and Beach Club in Grand Harbour Ballroom South. You can download and/or view all my session materials here.

Note: I think if you visit the presentation on SlideShare and download it, you can get the notes.

Here is my handout for my Macbeth performance task that I discuss as an alternative to a performance.

Here is a graphic organizer for my comparative video exercise for Act I Scene 1. I use the filmed versions of Macbeth directed by Jack Gold, Roman Polanski, and Geoffrey Wright for this activity.

Here is a Wordle made from the text of Macbeth that I use to introduce students to themes in the play.

Chris Shamburg’s radio play of the “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” scene.

If you want to explore the UbD Educators wiki (Understanding by Design, ® ASCD) for a variety of resources, feel free to check it out. You don’t have to join to lurk; you have to join to contribute your own work.

Links to my previous work aligning Folger methods with backward design:

Blog posts about Folger/teaching Shakespeare:

Links to other helpful resources:

If you would like to see the Shakespeare Made Easy activity I mentioned, please visit and join A Way to Teach. You’ll find a lot of great resources there.

If I can think of more stuff to add later, I will, so bookmark this post if you’d like to access it more easily.

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Pretty British Literature Handouts

Partly because I am trying to show off the pretty handouts I have created using Apple iWorks’s Pages, and partly because I wanted to try out Issuu, here is a collection of handouts for British literature.

What a pretty way to share handouts!

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Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Using an idea from Chris Renino in Shakespeare Set Free and Chris Shamburg, my students created a radio play of Macbeth 4.1, in which the witches prepare the “hell broth.” Take a listen:

Download Macbeth 4.1

Nuts and bolts:

  • We used GarageBand on my Mac. One of my students knew how to produce the echo effect. I think Audacity would work, too, but I’m not sure if it has all the effects GarageBand has.
  • We did two run-throughs without recording before we did the recording. We were happy with our first recording, so we used it as our final.
  • The crunching leaves were created by potato chips in a bowl.
  • We used a large vase with water to make the cauldron noises.
  • Students created the howling winds and dogs.

It was totally awesome! The students loved it, I loved it, and we had fun.

Update: 11/12/09 at 7:29 P.M.: I am adding the podcast created by my other British Lit. class. This particular podcast was created by only four students (as opposed to the other, which was created by 17 students). Considering their small numbers, I think it turned out extremely well. We had to use multiple tracks and do more cutting and editing, both of which made this particular recording more of a challenge.

Download Macbeth 4.1

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Macbeth Unit Plan

I have not been happy with my Macbeth unit for some time. I sat down with my department chair today and brainstormed, and I have come up with a new plan that includes some serious tweaking and a performance task that I’m in love with (I only hope the students will be, too). I have left my old unit plan up for comparison.

I spent most of the evening reading through Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth, and I have decided that most of the unit will consist of lesson plans from this text. Even if you decide not to use all the lessons in this book, it’s an invaluable resource and perhaps one of the single most important additions to your professional library if you teach Shakespeare. Almost all of my learning plan consists of lessons from this book, and because of copyright restrictions, I have provided only the page numbers for your reference.

I used Wordle to create the Macbeth Wordle/word cloud I reference in the learning plan. You can easily create one, too. I would advise taking out words like “exit, exeunt, Macbeth, and lady” as well as other character names as they will skew the word counts in favor of character names instead of common words, such as “blood, night, sleep, and hands.”

The lesson I called “If it were done” comes from Joe Scotese and can be found at his site A Way to Teach. You will need to register and earn at least five points before you can download this lesson. Joe has a great site, and I highly encourage you to join up, particularly if you teach British literature or Shakespeare in any capacity. Essentially, the lesson involves a close reading of Macbeth’s soliloquy alongside a version from Shakespeare Made Easy; students learn that Shakespeare says a great deal on many levels with his word choices (this activity will really blow their minds; it blew mine!), and that modern translations cannot adequately substitute for the original.

Finally, you can download a PDF of my performance task. It is customized for my class. If you would like, you may keep the PDF I created for my class, but you won’t be able to make changes to it.

Addendum: I can no longer customize these handouts. Please feel free to use the one I shared here.

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Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth

Geoffrey Wright's MacbethEnglish teachers looking for a good version of Macbeth to show their students in conjunction with a study of Shakespeare’s play should avoid Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 production. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet before it, this modern Macbeth seeks to lure in the younger set; however, unlike Luhrmann’s production, in the case of Macbeth, the update doesn’t work.

The play’s setting is moved from Scotland to modern-day Melbourne, Australia. The cast, starring Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth, is Australian. The play opens as the three witches, who look more like deviant schoolgirls, are defacing a cemetery. Duncan is the leader of a gang, rather than King of Scotland, and when the witches predict that Macbeth can take over the gang, Macbeth murders Duncan and begins his inexorable march toward doom.

The director’s choice to turn the kingdom of Scotland into underworld Melbourne makes the story go awry. Romeo and Juliet makes sense as a gang story as it is essential a story of two warring families. I didn’t buy it with Macbeth, especially when Macbeth’s title of Thane of Cawdor is still applied. I didn’t like any of the characters, and I really didn’t care what happened to any of them.

Pluses:

  • This film might appeal to today’s youth. I read a review describing it as Macbeth for the Quentin Tarantino generation, but I think that’s an insult to Quentin Tarantino.
  • The characters sport cool leather jackets and artfully mussed hair.
  • The opening scene with the witches is truly scary, in my opinion, and the Ghost Banquo scene is superb.
  • The murder of the Macduffs is shocking; the director pulled no punches, though thankfully didn’t show us the poor child’s murder.

Minuses:

  • Nudity and sexual content — Macbeth has sex with all three witches in a bizarre rendition of the second witch scene (“Beware the Thane of Fife”).
  • Butchery of the “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy.

Bottom line: I wouldn’t recommend showing this one to high school students. Though the film is not rated, the sexual content alone would have earned it at least an R-rating (never mind the violence). None of the actors is a standout, and the modern setting has only minimal appeal in light of the film’s flaws.

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